FIRST TAKE: The day an ANC president had to defend his struggle credentials

2019-02-14 15:50
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses members of Parliament during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2019 debate reply in the National Assembly. (Photo by Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses members of Parliament during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2019 debate reply in the National Assembly. (Photo by Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

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President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday had to do something that none of his predecessors, including the corruption accused Jacob Zuma, has ever been forced to do: defend his struggle credentials.

Nobody – not Zuma, Thabo Mbeki and certainly not Nelson Mandela – was ever forced to explain whether or not they betrayed the struggle against apartheid by agreeing to work with the apartheid police. But that's exactly what happened in the National Assembly during Ramaphosa's response to the debate on his State of the Nation Address.

Ramaphosa, the founding general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and scourge of mining bosses, anointed by Mandela as the ANC's lead negotiator during the transition and the midwife of the final Constitution, found it necessary to tell Mosioua Lekota and Julius Malema that he was not "a sell-out".

READ: Lekota's political tactics are tired and ineffective

During the debate on Wednesday Lekota told MPs that Ramaphosa sold out his comrades in the struggle to the security police in exchange for a lenient penalty after he was arrested for participating in a student march. Malema, the EFF leader whose politics consists of conspiracy theories and outlandish claims, immediately demanded the institution of a judicial commission of inquiry.

Ramaphosa's response on Thursday was personal and emotional. Taking to the podium he was in a sombre and serious mood, his brow furrowed and his sense of humour suspended. He denied the accusations, saying that he has "never, ever" sold out his comrades and confirming that he was approached (through his father, a sergeant in the then police) to work with the apartheid state.

But he made it clear that it was never an option to assist the security branch in order to save his own skin. In fact, he told his captors that he would be happy to break rocks on Robben Island.

And he addressed Malema directly, saying that he is in the habit of "raising issues and spreading innuendo" that causes great damage and leads to fake news. The rumour that NUM, of which he was the general secretary, was a project of the mining bosses at Anglo American at 44 Main Street in Johannesburg, was a lie. NUM "and its members" suffered under strikes, and Anglo suffered – why would the company hurt its own interests, Ramaphosa asked?

It was a remarkable 30 minutes. An ANC president using the platform of the National Assembly to defend his role in the struggle. In modern-day South Africa "struggle credentials" carry some weight in society. It positions the holder in the social pecking order, grants access to powerbrokers and government and endows him with moral authority.

Fake struggle credentials are considered sacrilege. And Ramaphosa was accused of being an askari, traitors who were dealt with through cruel mob justice.

If Ramaphosa was secure in his leadership, if he enjoyed broad support in the governing party and if there was consensus about what really happened in the 1980s and the 1990s, he would have laughed off the allegations. But he isn't secure, he doesn't enjoy broad support and the past is very much contested. And it forced him to do what no other ANC leader has had to do as head of state.

He had to tell his audience: "But I'm one of you."

Read more on:    cyril rama­phosa  |  parliament

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