First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Western Cape: Ramaphosa ticks off trains and farmers in...

Defend Truth

2019 Elections: Analysis

Western Cape: Ramaphosa ticks off trains and farmers in a tight stump programme

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attends a ceremony to launch a new train part of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) Modernisation Programme at Cape Town Station, South Africa 09 April 2019. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

President Cyril Ramaphosa on the stump is personable and talks on just about anything and everything. He stays on message: we will eradicate corruption, South Africans have and must again all work together and skills, the importance of education and skills and the multi-billion rand investment programme to turn around the economy. On a campaign trail littered with promises, regardless of political party, Ramaphosa seems curiously alone in these endeavours.

President Ramaphosa got rid of his train jinx. Three weeks ago he spent four hours on a snail’s pace crawling and stalling Johannesburg commuter train – not an unusual occurrence anywhere in the country for millions of daily commuters, but a presidential security nightmare and a great fracture in the normally tightly controlled optics around the President.

It wasn’t going to happen again. Even if Tuesday’s occasion was for the President of the country, and that other time was an ANC electioneering stunt fallen off its tracks.

Tuesday was about the future of train commuting in new, local is lekker trains the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) calls “people’s trains”. According to the official booklet, the trains’ “exterior design draws inspiration from South Africa’s national flower, the Protea”, and travel speeds reach up to 120kmph, a far cry from the 30kmph average speed Ramaphosa travelled on that other train on that other occasion.

It’s Prasa’s attempt to put behind the debacle of having spent at least R600-million on trains too tall for South Africa’s tracks, a matter still subject of litigation. The new trains are “built to accommodated South Africa’s 1,067m gauge rail tracks,” the official Prasa booklet notes twice on a double page spread touting the new train features. But while 7,224 such trains are expected in the next two decades at a cost of R123,5-billion, by 2020 just 35 would be on the tracks – nationwide.

Tuesday’s train event, dubbed “The future is here”, was an opportunity for Ramaphosa to showcase delivery. It was an opportunity to show that the President doing something after slating as “unacceptable” the train delays he experienced on 18 March on a journey that should have taken 45 minutes, not 240.

It’s an election year and lines are blurring. And so the ANC piggybacked on Tuesday’s train do with the President.“This is a culmination of hard work by successive ANC governments to improve South Africa’s passenger rail system… The ANC-led government made a firm commitment to modernise the system that was built during the first half of the 20th century,” it said in a statement.

That the new modernised trains are blue which delighted outgoing Western Cape DA Premier Helen Zille, who called it a “wonderful symbolism” in reference to the DA blue party colour. “If you want service delivery, move from yellow (the current train colour alongside grey) to blue,” she quipped, leaving Transport Minister Blade Nzimande a short while later to maintain that as blue is a colour in South Africa’s flag, it was totally appropriate that the people’s train would be blue.

Five hours later, and some 50kms away, railway tracks were traded for rows of vines.

Beyerskloof wine estate was closed for a private function, the board outside on the road announced. That private function was, of course, Ramaphosa addressing around 100 farmers. This time he was on as ANC president, although the security detail from X-Ray machine, sniffer dogs and phalanx of bodyguards, and SAPS details remained the same.

Ramaphosa cracked a joke about having been stuck for four hours on one train one day, but quickly moved to emphasise, what he called, “the new future of the people’s train”. And that included recounting how the local train factory employed a majority of women both on the factory floor, but also in management.

I’m the type of President who believes in high performance. We need to be the best in what we do,” he told the farmers towards the end of an over hour of responding to earlier questions. Closer to the start his comments were that “after the election, I will tell my Cabinet now we need to perform”.

Ramaphosa is very, very good on the stump. He’s personable, and moves to identify with the audience, and put them at ease. He talks off the cuff, informed and able to tailor information to the questioner at hand.

At the end of February 2019 in the interaction with professionals in Cape Town’s iconic City Hall as part of the ANC’s “conversations with the President” campaign trail events, Ramaphosa in detail responded to around 20 questions from the 800 or so strong audience covering higher education, visas, small business entrepreneurism and traditional Khoi-San leadership.

On Tuesday it was bringing out his farming background to share the frustration about how it takes way too long to get permits. In his case, three years for a water use licence on his farm to plant maize. He didn’t apply in his own name, he told the farmers because he didn’t want to do that, but a trust made the application.

The President’s jacket had come off. The farmers, white and male predominately, dressed more casually than smart with solid shoes and boots.

They were a tough crowd, applauding loudest when Ramaphosa promised: “We are going to rid this country of corruption.” Earlier, there had been some approving shouts of “hoor, hoor (hear, hear)” when the ANC president talked of being a glass-half-full kind of guy.

Yes, there is a future for white South Africans in South Africa, as there is a future for farmers. He’d tie them to a tree if that were allowed, joked Ramaphosa in his response to a young winemaker, but he also hinted that during his next set of travels he’d try meet South African expats to persuade them to return home.

Ramaphosa sneaked in the “grow South Africa” ANC election motto when he pitched the need for a social compact for the country’s future: “I want us to work together to grow South Africa.”

That meant accepting land reform as one of the major issues that needed to be addressed, jointly. And yes, land reform is going to happen because the “original sin” of dispossession needed to be addressed under the law and the Constitution.

There was at least one fan in the audience, Beyerskloof owner and cellar master Beyers Truter. He had hosted this conversation with the President “so the farmers can see we have a great future. He’s doing everything for the future,” Truter told Daily Maverickafterwards. His introductory remarks had been even more glowing, including divine anointment. But another farmer, Chris Steenkamp, also came out in support: “We as farmers here, we back you. We stand behind you.”

That sort of support, and appreciation, doesn’t come easily. Not in a province that has consistently voted DA for the past two elections, and a town like Stellenbosch that’s been DA for four local polls. And not from within farming communities that are widely regarded as conservative.

It’s part of that Ramaphoria. It had DA leader Mmusi Maimane momentarily gobsmacked at his alternate state of the nation address in February when a diplomat told him that he was picking up that a lot of business people would shift their vote to the ANC because of Ramaphosa.

It seems uniting and renewing the ANC, and by extension South Africa, is the mandate and the message Ramaphosa has taken from the December 2017 Nasrec ANC national conference that saw him elected party president by the tightest of margins, or 179 votes. And Ramaphosa is a peddler of hope, of how things could be. And the narrative the Presidency wants to weave is one of performance, reliability, of change and renewal.

It’s a narrative that’s broken by Ramaphosa’s own government be it through medicine stock-outs, failing compliance with government’s own policies like adequate school sanitation rather than pit latrines and so on. And it’s a narrative broken by Ramaphosa’s own faction-ridden ANC by, for example, retaining those implicated in State Capture allegations, or by courts for having lied under oath, on election lists by hammering home the explanation of innocent until proven guilty.

Just hours after Ramaphosa wrapped up his push for a social compact in conversation with Western Cape farmers, demonstrators shouting their support for ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule disrupted the Sandton book launch of Gangster State in which Pieter-Louis Myburgh outlines the ANC politician’s iron fist grip on the Free State.

The ANC quickly distanced itself from this disruption described as undermining freedom of expression: “Those who disrupted the launch did not do so in the name of the ANC nor on behalf of the ANC Secretary General,” it said in a statement – and also any call to burn the book in what seemed to be a reference to the Free State ANC youth league’s earlier official statement that announced a book burning with “a nice fire at the Mangaung south side dumping site”. The provincial youth league said it was hosting the book burning because of its “unapologetic support” for Magashule.

The shake-out of the ANC factions on the campaign trail are unpredictable. And that puts Ramaphosa on the back foot as he criss-crosses the country ticking off the engagements – Tuesday, Prasa trains and farmers, Wednesday religious leaders and an investment ceremony at the Pretoria factory of Nissan. And regular door-to-door campaigning, most recently last weekend on Magashule’s home province of the Free State.

Tuesday’s presidential conversation with farmers ended with a chat here and a chat there and a few selfies with the staff. Ramaphosa has the time, and inclination.

Earlier, at the end of the conversation with the President, following the required security check, Ramaphosa received a box of wine. The name? Faith. DM



Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted