Ramaphosa land announcement reminiscent of Zuma years

The newly elected ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa takes a selfie with party member Pule Mabe at the ANC's elective conference in Johannesburg in December 2017. (Themba Hadebe, AP)
The newly elected ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa takes a selfie with party member Pule Mabe at the ANC's elective conference in Johannesburg in December 2017. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

The subtitle on the screen was "President Cyril Ramaphosa", not "ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa". He wore a shirt draped in ANC colours. In the background were ANC flags. It was close to midnight.

The occasion was Ramaphosa's "address to the nation" on the outcomes of the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla. The platform was the public broadcaster.

The sight of all these raised serious questions. Was this Cyril Ramaphosa of the New Dawn/Thuma Mina fame who would know better the distinction between party and state?

Something seemed fundamentally wrong with the entire depiction of his late-night speech. Before the public broadcast of his address, word was already out that the president would speak to "the nation" after the outcomes of ANC lekgotla.

The announcement immediately raised "national" expectations. Was the president planning to reshuffle Cabinet and finally remove those he shouldn't have kept in his cabinet in the first place, after consultation with other ANC leaders at the lekgotla? Those who had this in mind would be justified. Reshuffles and other major announcements were a nocturnal affair under President Jacob Zuma.

Was the "president" planning to provide an emergency response to the terrible news of ever-rising unemployment figures that had been released the previous day? Whoever had expected something of this nature should be forgiven. Unemployment is the single biggest crisis facing South Africa and the "president" should be correctly concerned and be prepared to provide a well-thought-out response.

Or was the "president" planning to announce the measures he promised to contain the fuel price increases? With taxi fares and the cost of living and doing business rising due to fuel hikes, it would make sense to have some announcement about what the president planned to do to bring about fuel price relief.

In the end, the president of the ANC announced that the party had resolved to support an amendment to the Constitution to allow for expropriation without compensation. But, wasn't this a decision already taken at the ANC conference last year?

What had changed for it to be re-announced in an "address to the nation" close to midnight? Besides, Parliament is conducting public hearings. It is yet to call on those who made written submissions to come before it to substantiate their positions on the contentious expropriation proposal.

The ANC president also announced that the party has directed him and his government to put together an economic stimulus package to boost the economy and create jobs. But such policy plans would have more weight if announced by the "president" of the country, the driver of the executive authority of the republic.

Politically, the president takes policy directives from his party. However, the office of the president of the republic clothes him with the national responsibility beyond his party.

His party's decisions will not always necessarily be in the national interest. But in his capacity as president of the republic he should be able to interpret his party's decisions, blend them with the perspectives from the nation as a whole in line with his constitutional duties and oath of office, and be able to produce an outcome that would be in the interest of the nation.

It is true that policy decisions of the ANC on their own are in the public interest because it is the governing party. But the relationship between the ANC and its public representatives such as those in the executive like the president and ministers should be carefully managed to avoid blurring the lines between party and state.

There would have been nothing wrong for Ace Magashule, the party's secretary general, to call a press conference at night if the ANC felt that whatever needed to be announced was so urgent that a few hours before sunrise felt like a century. Ramaphosa, as the implementer in government, would follow up with an announcement of how his executive, having taken into account broader national considerations, would deal with the country's pressing challenges.

Ramaphosa should at this early stage of his presidency frame his relationship with the ANC in such a way that the party is not perceived to be interfering in matters of state. He should also not appear as though the party is leading him. The party elected him to be the leader and it shouldn't instruct him to make an "address to the nation" on party matters that could best be handled differently.

South Africans has had enough of the blurring of many lines under Zuma. Ramaphosa should expect heightened skepticism if and when citizens spot something vaguely close to resembling Zuma's conduct. With Zuma, it got to a point where his friends, the Guptas, were running government and enquiries about his private life – from sexual matters to criminal charges – were responded to by "The Presidency" of the republic.

Ramaphosa must not allow his party or personal issues to interfere with his constitutional duty as president of the nation as a whole. There is something particularly solemn about the idea of "addressing the nation" especially if it's done by someone who happens to be the president of the country. This solemnity should be protected, not undermined.

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences 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.

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