It was shortly after midnight on what was technically the sixth day of the ANC’s 54th conference when new party president Cyril Ramaphosa was able to deliver his first address, and the conference’s last. Ramaphosa’s message preached the strength and unity of the ANC, but also sketched a picture of a party bent on renewal. He promised a more responsive ANC, more respectful of its people, and re-committed to its Alliance partners. But lest anyone be in doubt, Ramaphosa also stressed the party’s commitment to radical economic transformation – and its unanimous decision to expropriate land without compensation. By REBECCA DAVIS.
A beaming ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa looked on top of the world as he stepped up to the podium to give his maiden address as ANC president. Clad casually in an ANC tracksuit top and golf shirt, Ramaphosa was greeted with enthusiastic song by his audience of weary delegates, despite the lateness of the hour.
“One has to get used to this,” Ramaphosa said at the beginning of his speech, greeting his fellow Top Six members by their new positions. In reality, he already looked used to it. More tech-savvy than Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa read his address from an iPad rather than the thick sheaf of notes in large print that his predecessor favoured.
Despite the drama and uncertainty that had prefaced his first speech, Ramaphosa hailed the Nasrec conference as an overwhelming success, serving to confound critics and strengthen and galvanise the ANC.
“There were some who even suggested that Nasrec would represent the end of the ANC, as we would emerge from here divided,” he said. “We are still here. Standing almost 106 years later. United.”
Though some have seen the composition of the ANC’s new Top Six as an example of an impossible political stalemate, Ramaphosa insisted that it was instead evidence of ANC delegates’ commitment to unity.
“You have turned your backs on the politics of the slate,” he congratulated his audience. Later, he paid tribute to presidential also-ran Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma “for the manner in which she demonstrated commitment to our movement during the campaign”.
Ramaphosa tacitly acknowledged criticism of the gender imbalance of the Top Six, however, by saying that the party needed to “examine, critically and honestly, our commitment to gender equality”. Patriarchal attitudes within the ANC and society needed to be ended, he said, because they are “simply backwards”.
His address also extended an olive branch to alliance partners the South African Communist Party and Cosatu, with whom the ANC has experienced increasingly strained relations of note. Ramaphosa said that a strong ANC was impossible without a strong and united tripartite alliance.
But his speech was not all sugar and conciliation. Ramaphosa displayed a steely resolve when turning to the policies decided on by the conference.
“As we leave this conference, we are resolved to pursue with greater determination the path of radical socio-economic transformation,” Ramaphosa said. Shortly afterwards, he dropped the “socio” part and referred simply to Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s rallying cry, “radical economic transformation”.
He proceeded to elaborate, off script, on the ANC’s resolution with regards to land. Ramaphosa was utterly emphatic on this point, repeating it several times in various forms to make sure his message landed: “The expropriation of land without compensation should be among the mechanisms available to government to give effect to land reform and redistribution.”
Lest there be any confusion on the matter, he also stressed that the resolution had been adopted “with overwhelming agreement, unanimous agreement”.
Ramaphosa’s concession to potentially spooked markets, however, was to emphasise that the resolution would be implemented in a manner that did not “undermine” the economy, agricultural production and food security.
Its implementation would be managed “properly, with due care”, Ramaphosa said.
A man who ran his entire presidential campaign on the promise of clean governance naturally also had to provide assurances that corruption would be dealt with swiftly and effectively. Ramaphosa did so in a slightly oblique fashion, condemning “individuals and families” who have exercised influence and money to achieve “the manipulation of governance processes and public resources”. (The issue that some of these individuals now sit on his own Top Six was not addressed.)
“Whether we call this State Capture or simply corruption, this has undermined the integrity of our institutions, cost our economy hundreds of billions of rands and contributed to the further impoverishment of our people,” Ramaphosa continued. He did not mention the judicial inquiry into State Capture, but said that the ANC’s Integrity Commission would work to “restore the integrity of the ANC and help cultivate and promote ethical leadership”.
A nice change of pace for journalists used to being lashed by outgoing president Zuma and fellow ANC leaders was found in the fact that Ramaphosa thanked the media for its coverage of the conference and expressed concern at the treatment of journalists at the hands of ANC security officials.
Ramaphosa may be closing the book on Jacob Zuma’s presidency, but he took care to devote the final portion of his speech to a warm tribute to his predecessor. Policy achievements he singled out for special mention numbered just two: the production of the National Development Plan, and Zuma’s leadership on the handling of HIV/Aids.
“We cannot close this, the 54th National Conference of the African National Congress, without paying tribute to [Zuma] for your contribution over many decades to the struggle for freedom, democracy and development,” Ramaphosa said, while Zuma smiled widely from the audience.
And with that, Ramaphosa declared the ANC’s 54th conference closed – sort of. Delegates would still have to wait for the announcement of the 80 remaining members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, as Ramaphosa explained that the results were not quite ready.
It is that announcement, rather than anything Ramaphosa said in his speech, that is likely to have the greatest impact on the direction South Africa will take in the near future. DM
Photo: Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his maiden address as ANC president. Nasrec, Johannesburg, December 2017. Photo: Leila Dougan