Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Ramaphosa's tough task: getting everyone to work together

2018-02-23 08:34
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa

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If you were asked who uttered the following words – "together we must build a society that prizes excellence and rewards effort, which shuns laziness and incompetence" – you would most likely not include Jacob Zuma on your list.

You also wouldn't associate Zuma with the following statement: "Fellow South Africans, this is indeed a moment of renewal. It is an opportunity to rediscover that which binds us together as a nation. The unity of our nation should be a priority for all sectors of our society."

It wouldn't make sense to link Zuma with the following vision: "We share a common conviction that never shall we return to a time of division and strife. From this common purpose we must forge a partnership for reconstruction, development and progress.

"In this partnership there is a place for all South Africans, black and white. It is a partnership founded on principles of mutual respect and the unfettered expression of different views. We do not seek conformity."

These were the words that came from Jacob Zuma's mouth at his first inauguration speech on 9 May 2009. They were supposed to be the guiding philosophy of his presidency. We believed him. Who wouldn't believe the humble peasant from Nkandla, the man of the people, the great listener, the consensus builder…?

We discovered to our horror – when it was too late – that the words were not worth the listening airtime. But they are part of our history and presidential heritage – even as a lie.

It's important that we don't forget the Zuma era. Only by keeping it in our minds can we prevent it from repeating itself. Which brings me to President Cyril Ramaphosa's undertaking in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Like Zuma, he also promised a renewal. "It is a new dawn that is inspired by our collective memory of Nelson Mandela and the changes that are unfolding," he said. "As we rid our minds of all negativity," [a reference to the Zuma era] Ramaphosa said, "we should reaffirm our belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. For though we are a diverse people, we are one nation." He went on to speak of how the diverse we are in our languages, cultures, experiences, views and histories. "Yet," he said, "we are bound together by a common destiny." 

The message of Zuma's inauguration address and Ramaphosa's first SONA is the same. They both made commitments that were music to the collective ear of the nation. They knew what we wanted to hear – and gave it to us. But, to twist a phrase, the devil is always in the implementation.

With the benefit of hindsight, we knew Zuma didn't mean a word of what he said. His presidency was characterised by divisions. He survived that long at the top by causing national divisions – along race, culture, class and gender lines. 

As if this was not enough, he divided his own party and its alliance partners, using government, particularly Cabinet appointments, as an instrument for personal show of power and patronage.

Now that Ramaphosa is in power, how certain are we that he will fulfil his promises? One can easily hear the retort: Ramaphosa is not Jacob Zuma. True. There are indeed glaring differences between the two. The circumstances of their rise to power are also different. Their outlook and life experiences are not the same.

There are similarities: both became president of the ANC and the country. They belong to the same organisation. Yet, for many people, Ramaphosa's address was very refreshing. Many people felt the same about Zuma's.

This means that what politicians say must always be taken with a pinch of salt until such time that they keep their words. Ramaphosa must show that he meant what he said. He must earn the trust of the nation. It must not be given to him on the platter. Until then, the public must maintain a healthy scepticism and consistently interrogate his every move, word and action.

His promises are indeed laudable. Bringing South Africans into a variety of summits to find solutions must not be dismissed as cheap, talk-shop politicking. Democratic South Africa is a product of summits – some were even described as "talks about talks". The Constitution of the Republic is a product of negotiations.

By promising leadership by consensus, Ramaphosa is not necessarily being innovative. He's merely rekindling what should really define South Africa: talking our way to solutions.

The difficulty with this approach is that it might signal a lack of decisiveness because it takes time to reconcile opposing views. Subjecting key policy decisions to summits could easily hobble decision-making.

However, putting citizens first is crucial in a democratic South Africa. As Justice Albie Sachs once remarked, the notion that "government knows best, end of inquiry" would have satisfied the likes of Justice Stratford in the 1930s, but was not compatible with democracy.

If Ramaphosa wants to be a successful consensus-building leader, he would have to craft a swift give-and-take strategy to ensure buy-in among all key stakeholders on key national issues. Building the kind of social compact he spoke about means convincing parties on the table, including his own government, to forfeit some of their treasured narrow interests in pursuit of common goals.

It won't be easy. Much as the Constitution making process provides us with the best guide, it also tells us how easy it is for people to disown the outcome at a later stage. The biggest challenge for Ramaphosa, which he, unfortunately didn't put out as a priority, is to get members of his own party, including MPs, to recommit themselves to the Constitution in practical terms.

Many have abandoned the Constitution. Some are actively working towards its destruction. It irritates them because it restrains the pursuit of absolute power.

For a while, it was the duty of ordinary citizens, opposition parties, civil society organisations and the judiciary to defend the Constitution. ANC members must now lend a hand to defend, promote and advance the Constitution. Only action, not words or lyrics, will be believed.

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Science at the University of South Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  government  |  anc  |  constitution
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