Cyril Ramaphosa remade SA society through ANC’s eyes

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation address at the Cape Town City Hall. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation address at the Cape Town City Hall. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 20, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

The opposition parties’ debate on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address (Sona) and their unreservedly critical approach to several poor governance issues masked in the speech set the scene for alternatives in their election manifestos.

Why do I say this? The tension between the we-are-the-vanguard majority party and the cross-spectrum of opposition politicians has played out in stark form in the debate.

Many focused on the policy implications – on what it had meant for the nation when the governing party treated the debate and, most concerningly, the sorry state of our nation as an election racket.

I know what you’re asking: You mean there could be policy implications in the tail-end of this administration proceeding to the next?

Yes, I see and say both. The implications are significant and alarming because presidents tend to become the political establishment and often employ careful political strategies as pillars of their administration’s apparatus.

But in this speech, Ramaphosa has gone beyond traditional norms in choosing a narrative to convey the realities of his record in office. In his imaginary picture, he remade the South African society into one that none of those blighted by unemployment, poverty and inequality related to.

Let me walk you through what happened last week that led to this conclusion as I witnessed the debate in the National Assembly.

When Ramaphosa arrived in the Union Buildings six years ago, the reception was as hostile as the takeover he led to cut short former president Jacob Zuma’s second term. He promised to push for sharp reversals of corruption and maladministration that were choking our nation.

Six years later, the lingering question throughout the debate has been whether the president’s account of his government’s performance is accurate and believable enough to warrant the ANC’s re-election in the next election.

I had discussed in private with some parliamentarians why it feels as if Ramaphosa’s ANC is losing control on several key fronts and why it could turn things around on those fronts if it had a sympathetic ear of a critical number of registered voters fearing the unknown life under a prospective coalition government of opposition parties.

At the same time, Ramaphosa and the ANC MPs, who long accused opposition parties of being selective in their assessment of the government’s performance for their self-gain, have come to mirror their methods by self-aggrandising the party in the hope of taking citizens into their confidence that attaining prosperity in the next five years is within reach.

The swamps they once declared needed draining are presented as wetlands needing protection.

The opposition falls short on exposing how the ANC is stamping out the final flashes of accountability inside government institutions, with astonishing speed, demonstrating that its power continues to grip traditional supporters even as the Constitutional Court recently refused to grant it further legal appeals in its bid to keep its cadre deployment records out of opposition hands.

Without crossing that tipping point in the minds and hearts of many voting citizens, the opposition could be stuck in the suspect zone forever in the minds of those questioning whether there are ulterior motives behind the ferocious attacks on the ANC’s three decades in power and Ramaphosa in particular.

No wonder two realities collided during the debate. As ANC MPs focused on the transformation that had occurred under its rule, there were gasps of shock in the opposition benches and elsewhere around the country as opposition lawmakers pointed to the prevailing situation in the country.

But not on the ANC benches, as MPs reacted to the notion of progress with boisterous cheers and whistles.

The failed promises and intensifying hardship? Forget them. They are not the ANC's problem.

Not surprisingly, Tintswalo – the fictional character used by Ramaphosa in the Sona – was a hot topic during the debate. But as DA leader John Steenhuisen noted, Tintswalo has never been more disillusioned by the freedom that has left her unemployed, living in a shack without water and electricity, whose father has been murdered and who fears for her safety.

The visceral rejection of the Tintswalo story constructed in the image of the government’s milestone achievements in the past three decades serves as a reminder of how much the notion of the governing party’s image as a glorious former liberation movement in the eyes of most citizens has shifted in recent years.

Bold policies such as affirmative action and Broad-based BEE, once seen as the bulwark of our developmental state, are viewed as outdated albatrosses by a significant segment of the South African public that Ramaphosa’s ANC appeals to.

There are no easy answers to many of the pressing challenges, as the old consensus that endured even in the initial years after the first two decades of our democracy has frayed under the weight of globalisation, the policy incoherence of the ANC government, the Great Recession of 2008/9 and Ramaphosa’s dithering in dealing with a relentless assault on democracy supporting institutions and looting of public funds.

While contributions during the debate reflected that most South Africans support government policies and other interventions to better the lives of citizens, the increasingly vocal rejection of the Tintswalo story in most opposition benches harks back to six years ago when many South Africans just wanted to replace the ANC with new leaders but decided to give Ramaphosa a chance to change things for the better.

Courageously, the opposition parties told a story that made a straightforward case, which was arguable: FF Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said the legacy of Ramaphosa’s six-year tenure was a sombre picture of decay, saying Ramaphosa openly admitted that the ANC was the biggest culprit when it came to corruption.

ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina has never seen it that way. While she has been ideologically flexible on many approaches, one constant going back to the beginning of Ramaphosa’s term has been her conviction that most opposition parties have shafted the ANC government. In this debate, it looked like the times had finally caught up with her views.

Majodina lashed out at opposition parties for their negativity, saying they were taking cheap shots for blaming the ANC for corruption but did not praise the party for the arrest of wrongdoers.

She and her fellow ANC MPs have successfully pushed the debate away from national engagement on multiple fronts. Where various parties once favoured incremental progress towards implementing a long list of government transformation policies and spent years expanding them in various economic sectors, now neither party commits to continuing doing so.

Not long ago, multiple parties were open to promoting social partner collaboration on various issues.

Today’s talk is all about polarising views targeted at winning votes, with no commitment to implementing crucial long-term agreements.

The limelight is on the election manifestos and how the outcome will shape the future.

* Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and human rights activist

Cape Times