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Ramaphosa shakes off Zuma’s spectre, sets the tone for a constitutionalist presidency

Cyril Ramaphosa speaks after taking the oath of office at his inauguation as South African President at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 25 May 2019. South African lawmakers elected Cyril Ramaphosa as president following the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party's win earlier this month in the country's general elections. EPA-EFE/Siphiwe Sibeko / POOL

Many of the things President Cyril Ramaphosa said at his official inauguration as South Africa’s fifth democratic president weren’t new. South Africans heard much of it a decade before, when the man most conspicuous in his absence at Ramaphosa’s event, made promises of his own to uphold the Constitution and strengthen the institutions of democracy. But so much has changed.

There is nothing dignified about the architecture of the Loftus Versfeld rugby stadium. It contains a lot of concrete, there is green grass on the pitch, and the media room is designed to induce claustrophobia and beer-and-biltong consumption. This is the kind of place where, on the stands, fans belt out the last part of the National Anthem, containing verses of Die Stem, before a game, while Nkosi Sikilel’iAfrika gets fudged over. It’s an unlikely place for a presidential inauguration in this 25-year-old democratic South Africa.

Yet the Presidency shunned the dignified, intimate, and scenic Union Buildings, and picked the home of the Blue Bulls months in advance, ostensibly to allow for more public attendance and participation. At Loftus there’s more space for dignitaries and VIP guests, as well as the ordinary people, who have previously sat on the lawns in front of the Union Buildings to watch proceedings on the big screens, KFC and oranges in hand. For once the National Anthem was sung properly in this rugby stadium. It almost seemed like the kind of populist stunt the administration of You-Know-Who, the man who styled himself as the ordinary person’s president and who moved the State of the Nation Address to 7pm in the evening, would have pulled.

Ramaphosa doesn’t project himself as a populist, rather as a Constitutionalist and a visionary. As deputy president he needed a lot of help from ordinary people – in civil society, within the ANC and alliance structures, and again at the polls just over two weeks ago on May 8 – to outmanoeuvre his energetic, street-fighting opponent and boss. Ramaphosa got elected ANC president in 2017 and on Saturday he took his oath of office, standing behind a waist-high fence of bulletproof glass on a stage on a rugby pitch in front of thousands of people not quite packing out the 50 000-seater stands on a warm Pretoria winter’s day.

In his speech, he recognised the Freedom Charter tradition, where a number of people of different races and from different backgrounds, including civil society, in 1955 got together to chart a common vision. Ramaphosa said: “Like our forebears who gathered so many years ago on a piece of veld in Kliptown to declare that the people shall govern, let us aspire to a future beyond the probable.” He called on people to use all they have “to realise the vision of our founding mothers and fathers”. He called on citizens to stand together, not just in formal structures, but as people: “Let us forge a compact – not merely as business and labour, not as those who govern and those who are governed – but as citizens and patriots of this great nation, free and equal and resolute.”

The man who couldn’t make it to the inauguration because he said he was too busy trying to stay out of jail all week back in KwaZulu-Natal (one of his wives, Bongi Ngema, showed up all on her lonesome even though it was him who was on the programme) similarly asked citizens to stand together in a unity in diversity way just over 10 years ago. “We share a common desire for a better life, and to live in peace and harmony. We share a common conviction that never shall we return to a time of division and strife. From this common purpose, we must forge a partnership for reconstruction, development and progress.”

That speech – delivered on May 9 behind an entire wall of bulletproof glass, to coincide with the 15th commemoration of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration – spoke of renewal and a fresh start, much like Ramaphosa’s speech was focused on a “new dawn”. Ten years ago many were tired of Thabo Mbeki’s stifling grip on power and his resolute stubbornness. In 2019, it is the state capture under the previous administration they are rejecting.

The 2009 speech, unlike Ramaphosa’s, drew on the legacy of all the former presidents, on whose shoulders South Africa’s fourth president tried to balance. Even Mbeki got a polite mention, although it was “my friend, comrade and brother”, caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe, who got the heartfelt praise for his “patriotic service to the nation” by bringing about “calm, stability and certainty” after Mbeki was ousted.

Mbeki suppressed his own feelings of resentment after his sacking in 2008 to attend both the 2009 and 2014 inaugurations. Even though he couldn’t bring himself to attend most ANC gatherings or national executive committee meetings (he had few loyalists on the inside left, as the opposing slate had close to a clean sweep at the Polokwane conference in 2007), or parliamentary openings, Mbeki was diligent about being at his immediate successor’s inauguration for the symbolism such a gesture carries, especially in a continent where many leaders at the time clung to power at all costs. Former president Jacob Zuma has now made a point of attending national executive committee meetings, where he still has a power base thanks to the “unity” outcome of the 2017 Nasrec conference, and he frequently upstages Ramaphosa at ANC events by arriving late.

Zuma mentioned the ANC twice in his 2009 inauguration speech, first when he thanked Mbeki for stepping aside and “demonstrating a character that the ANC had always embodied since 1912” (Mbeki was unlikely to have agreed with this) and secondly when he thanked those who voted for him. “More than 11.6 million South Africans voted for the ANC, based on the programme put before them. We are now called upon to implement our manifesto,” he said, adding: “The dreams and hopes of all the people of our country must be fulfilled.” Later he famously said the ANC came before the country because the ANC was a “revolutionary organisation” that would lead people to their “destination”.

Ramaphosa’s emphasis in his inauguration speech wasn’t party-specific. “With your votes, you have placed your confidence and your trust in the men and women who now sit in our sixth democratic Parliament,” he told South Africans. “They have now said, send us. They have said, Thuma Mina.” He said South Africans have chosen them to safeguard their rights, to improve their lives and to build a country that was united, strong and truly free. “You, the people of South Africa, have sent them, and you have sent me, as your President. Having taken the oath of office I am saying yes, South Africa, Thuma Mina.”

But there was a twist to having the event in a stadium. Much as voters can humiliate a party during elections time, just so a crowd can humiliate an individual they don’t like, with immediate effect. On Saturday, former president FW de Klerk got some boos, while Mbeki got a rowdy hero’s welcome. Chances are that, in this set-up, with this crowd of mostly ANC supporters bussed in at municipalities’ cost, Zuma would have been booed.

By having it in this stadium, and by pulling off such a massive event successfully and securely, Ramaphosa wanted to send a subtle message to doubters over who is boss. For the first time in democratic South Africa, the inauguration also included an extensive military parade and a spectacular and entertaining flyover by the Air Force. The added irony was that those Gripens that flew over the stadium in an impressive formation during the air show and with ear-piercing sound, symbolising a defence of the Constitution, were part of the very Arms Deal that landed Zuma in court all those years ago – and again this week – in the first place.

If Zuma as president revelled in being called Commander-in-Chief of the military, Ramaphosa seems to revel in it more. Power is important to him, and he will wield this power through institutions to maximum effect, was the message. His opponents are threatening to fight and even unseat him through the ANC, but Ramaphosa is systematically busy polishing the state institutions to bring to book some of those who plot against him to stay out of jail. DM


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