With Jacob Zuma out of action due to ill health, it has been Cyril Ramaphosa who has been filling his shoes at official functions – and looking as if those shoes were fitting him pretty nicely. Deputy Presidents are often relegated to the status of mere figureheads, as Kgalema Motlanthe discovered, but there are already indications that Ramaphosa will not be lying low. It was the deputy president, not the president, who was the honoured guest at an annual post-SONA breakfast briefing in Cape Town. And it was Ramaphosa who was singled out by Julius Malema for special criticism at the post-SONA Parliamentary debate. By REBECCA DAVIS.
President Jacob Zuma is just fine, thank you. In fact, he is better than fine. He is “fully rested”. While giving the State of the Nation Address on Tuesday night he was “in his element, focused, strong”. That’s what Cyril Ramaphosa had to say about the President’s health at The New Age’s breakfast briefing on Wednesday.
The problem with making these assertions about just how healthy the president is, is that it prompts an obvious question: in that case, why isn’t he addressing The New Age’s breakfast briefing, rather than Ramaphosa?
Ramaphosa didn’t deal with that. But he’s been dealing with a lot else lately. He delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Epainette Mbeki on Saturday. He officiated at the national Youth Day celebrations in Kimberley on Monday. And he chaired the three-day Cabinet lekgotla in Pretoria from Tuesday.
At the breakfast briefing Ramaphosa appeared relaxed and controlled. His job, to some degree, seemed to be to act as a sweeper, clearing up ambiguities from the previous evening’s address, reinforcing its commitments and at some points covering aspects unattended to by Zuma – like the downgrade of South Africa’s credit rating. “We are not sitting on our laurels or hiding our heads in the sand like ostriches,” Ramaphosa assured his audience, pointing out that it was a time when many other countries were facing economic challenges.
Among the barriers to economic growth currently, Ramaphosa said, were energy constraints and a skills shortage. Zuma spent over twenty minutes of his Tuesday-night address on the energy issue: a clear indication of the priority it has been given. Ramaphosa was hammering home the same memo, reiterating that the government was aiming for a “sustainable energy mix”, involving coal, solar, wind, hydro and nuclear energy. Coal-fired power stations Kusile and Medupi would be brought online in the shortest possible time.
With regards to the issue of skills shortages, Ramaphosa said the government wanted to see the private sector coming to the party more, opening up opportunities like internships for the youth (though it’s estimated that the private sector creates as much as 70% of South African jobs already). The private sector must invest more, he urged, and overcome the “trust issue” holding back high-level, long-term economic investment.
Rating agencies had complimented the government on the “wonderful plan” it had in the National Development Plan (NDP), Ramaphosa said, but their concern was that they wanted more evidence of its implementation. Ramaphosa said that the next five years would be the key to the NDP’s coming to fruition. There is certainly a lot hanging on the NDP, which Ramaphosa essentially described as holding the key to shaping most aspects of South African life for the better.
Ramaphosa is a less strained public speaker than his boss. He spoke largely without reference to his notes, throwing in at least one seemingly ad-libbed anecdote – a reference to a young woman who spoke at Epainette Mbeki’s funeral. When anchor Peter Ndoro pointed out that Ramaphosa’s had been a lengthy absence from active high-level politics, Ramaphosa said he’d been “learning on the job”. But he displayed due deference to Zuma: “Before I do anything I get good advice from him,” Ramaphosa said.
Despite this cap-doffing, there was no denying the presidential shadow cast by Ramaphosa. Asked outright by Ndoro if he was being groomed to be president, he countered with a quip: that he was indeed preparing to be president – of his golf club.
At a post-SONA analysis session hosted by the Open Society in Cape Town later the same day, the Daily Maverick’s Ranjeni Munusamy suggested that Ramaphosa would be under the spotlight more and more in the months to come.
“People are realising that Zuma’s moment is passing,” she said. “[Tuesday] night was his seventh state of the nation address. People will look increasingly to Ramaphosa.”
It’s not a prospect that thrills everyone. “I don’t think there should be much excitement about Ramaphosa,” said political analyst Ebrahim Fakir at the same event, suggesting that Ramaphosa might be “fit” for office but possibly not “proper”. In making this assertion he drew on Ramaphosa’s business background: his stewardship of the failed New Africa Investments Limited (NAIL), and his directorship of Lonmin at the time of the Marikana Massacre.
Rehad Desai’s Marikana documentary Miners Shot Down provides a reminder of how seamlessly Ramaphosa has made the transition from one side of the miners’ bargaining table to the other. Footage of Ramaphosa speaking as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 80s shows him saying: “There is no such thing as a liberal bourgeois. They are all the same. They use fascist methods to destroy workers’ lives.”
Asked about the platinum strike on Wednesday, Ramaphosa said that the country had hit “the deep end”, and “the only way is up”. But he expressed confidence that unrest between labour and business could be resolved. “We are a nation of consensus-builders,” he said.
When Ramaphosa took his seat in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon for the post-SONA debate, he would have been prepared for a “robust” session. But perhaps he’d forgotten just how bruising the exchanges could be. Julius Malema took little time to bring the spectre of Marikana into the National Assembly and lay its responsibility at the feet of the ANC, if not Ramaphosa explicitly.
But Malema also singled Ramaphosa out for special criticism. Beginning his debut speech by acknowledging that the ANC had taught him everything he knew politically, Malema used Ramaphosa as a way of illustrating how far the ruling party has strayed from its authentic self.
The EFF is “opposing the ANC of Marthinus van Schalkwyk and Cyril Ramaphosa,” Malema said. In lumping Ramaphosa together with former NP leader Van Schalkwyk, his intention was clearly to suggest that both figures represented the debased, opportunistic character of the latter-day party. Ramaphosa didn’t react visibly in any way; he may be recently returned to Parliament, but this ain’t his first rodeo.
It was perhaps telling that Malema should seek Ramaphosa out for censure in his maiden speech. After all, one can hardly imagine any Parliamentarians bothering to give Kgalema Motlanthe a good rev; partly, admittedly, because Motlanthe was a generally less controversial figure, but also because Motlanthe was seen to pose little threat. In Ramaphosa, we have something different; not the “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” character of deputy president stereotypes.
As things stand, Ramaphosa is a deputy president looking over the shoulder of a man more than ten years his senior, apparently in poor health, who has presided over a scandal-drenched administration and may not see out another full presidential term. As Ramaphosa’s light burns brighter, he can be sure of many more Parliamentary attacks. DM
Ramaphosa: We are not sitting on our laurels, on IOL
Photo: SA Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks about last night’s State of the Nation Address by President Jacob Zuma at a business breakfast in Cape Town, Wednesday, 18 June 2014. Picture: GCIS/SAPA