South Africa

Dream, inaugurated

Ramaphosa paints a technicolor future. Next up: real life

Ramaphosa paints a technicolor future. Next up: real life
Illustrative image. Photos; Cyril Ramaphosa arrives for his inauguration as South African President at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 25 May 2019. EPA-EFE/Siphiwe Sibeko / POOL / Aircraft fly past at the inauguration of Cyril Ramaphosa 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

Watching and listening to Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural address and the enveloping ceremonies inevitably triggered thoughts of cinematic and historical references. The whole broadcast virtually cried out for a suitably inspirational soundtrack in addition to all the musicians singing before the speeches and prayers – and the display of airborne power.

There is that moment in the film, Invictus, which takes place inside the cockpit of the SAA 747, just as it is about to conduct a dangerous, low altitude flyover of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. As the plane swoops over the teeming sports ground, the roar of the plane washes over audiences in cinemas – just as it must have done in real life. Military theorists would probably call this effect a “force multiplier” – just as it turned out to be the case for that final match.

Accordingly, it is an easy leap of belief to see Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential inauguration as a made-for-television force multiplier for his national (and international) audiences. Consequently, it may have been even more so for the live audience seated in Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria.

A key element of that live audience was all those African heads of state and other senior officials from the continent, as well as representatives from still further afield. And, of course, so too, most of South Africa’s governmental “royalty” were in attendance as well. In fact, taken as a whole, the day’s events had a distinctly semiotic texture, what with all the potent signs, allegories, metaphors, and some serious symbolism going on all around the stadium.

Once the speeches were over, there was a fly-past drawing on the full panoply of the country’s modern military air power, right along with what seemed to be a whole air wing of historic (and historical) aircraft, all seemingly designed to deliver a core message. And what was that message? We are back; we are loud; we are proud, and we are definitely ready to rock. Attending dignitaries, are you watching all this?

And it might not have been too much of a stretch, if one listened very, very carefully, to hear the distant echo of an earlier South African military’s reach into the rest of the continent, even if that particular bit of history was never mentioned explicitly in the extensive narration delivered to the live and broadcast crowds by a military historian. This sense of power was brought forward, gently, perhaps, following a decade in which the country has largely been drawing back from any real assertion of projecting South Africa’s hard and soft power – out onto the continent.

Before the military display, however, there was the actual presidential inauguration and Cyril Ramaphosa’s address. Listening to Ramaphosa speaking, after nearly a decade of being subjected to a public near-incoherence from his predecessor in his statements, it has obviously come as a relief to hear a leader deliver a speech as if it clearly expressed his own sentiments and feelings. And, in fact, it actually sounded very much like the way President Ramaphosa has spoken in more intimate circumstances in the public arena that this writer has heard.

In his speech, the president put a velvet glove over that airborne fist, saying his goal is “to build the Africa that all Africans want. To forge a free trade area that stretches from Cape Town to Cairo, bringing growth and opportunity to all African countries. To silence the guns and let peace and harmony reign. Today, we declare that our progress as South Africa depends on – and cannot be separated from – the onward march of our beloved continent [of] Africa.”

There it was, virtually the only spoken references to a Ramaphosa doctrine towards the continent, save for a later reach back to ANC founding father Pixley ka Seme’s own early 20th-century vision for Africa, where Seme had written:

The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities. Her Congo and her Gambia whitened with commerce, her crowded cities sending forth the hum of business, and all her sons [and daughters] employed in advancing the victories of peace – greater and more abiding than the spoils of war.”

That vision had a positively Walt Whitmanesque ring to it (as in his poem I Hear America Singing) in some of Seme’s cadences, now made use of by President Ramaphosa.

While it is true that some businesses have been moving further into Africa, this country’s government has increasingly looked inward instead. Over the past decade at least, it has even avoided any efforts that might have rocked the boat in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Instead, it has been consumed by debilitating feuds within the governing party, and the looting and corruption that has become something of a disastrous national habit.

To watch and listen to this speech via its televised broadcast, it felt as if Ramaphosa was quite deliberately turning a page to a new chapter in the national narrative. Are you ready for yet another cinematic reference? In the final moments in the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the animation goes from a shadowy black and white, and then bursts into glorious technicolor. The characters stride into a landscape bathed in sunlight. Birds sing, and butterflies flutter all around them, and the music wells up, as they dance and sing their way to the final credits.

But, of course, Saturday’s speech was not an endpoint, but effectively, the beginning of this particular national technicolor future. Anyone expecting a detailed outline of the president’s programme of action still must wait for the next State of the Nation and Budget speeches. This time around, at least, there were no declarations of important new initiatives, and no major expositions of national governmental policies. But there was this:

… Our land has known both seasons of plenty and times of scarcity. Our people have felt the warm embrace of liberty. They have rejoiced at the affirmation of their essential and equal humanity. They have found shelter and sustenance. They have found opportunity and purpose. As the shackles of oppression have fallen away, they have felt their horizons widen and their lives improve in myriad ways.

But they have also known moments of doubt. They have felt the cold shadow of a past so cruel and iniquitous that it has at times threatened to eclipse the very achievement of their hard-won freedom.

Despite our most earnest efforts, many South Africans still go to bed hungry, many succumb to diseases that can be treated, many live lives of intolerable deprivation. Too many of our people do not work especially the youth.

In recent times, our people have watched as some of those in whom they had invested their trust have surrendered to the temptation of power and riches. They have seen some of the very institutions of our democracy eroded and resources squandered.

The challenges that we face are real. But they are not insurmountable. They can be solved. And we are going to solve them.”

This almost reaches for the rhetorical texture of words by a John Kennedy, a Franklin Roosevelt, or a Winston Churchill, acknowledging the dangers and disasters all around, but promising that technicolor future, nonetheless.

And here, reaching for a Barack Obama-esque peroration, the president spoke to his nation, saying:

As we give effect to their mandate, we draw comfort from the knowledge that that which unites us is far, far more powerful and enduring than that which divides us.

Despite our differences, despite a past of conflict and division and bitterness, despite the fierce political contestation among 48 political parties in recent months, we share the same hopes and fears, the same anxieties and aspirations. We all want our children to have lives that are better than our own, to have work that is dignified and rewarding.

We are bound together by our determination that never again shall the adversities of our past be visited on the people of this land. This is a defining moment for our young nation.

Today is the choice of history. It is a time for us to make the future we yearn for. It is through our actions now that we will determine our destiny. South Africans want action and not just words and promises. And there will be action. It is through our actions now that we will give form to the society for which so many have fought and sacrificed and for which all of us yearn.

All South Africans yearn for a society defined by equality, by solidarity, by a shared humanity. They yearn for a society in which our worth is determined by how we value others….

As a nation we therefore can no longer abide the grave disparities of wealth and opportunity that have defined our past and which threaten to imperil our future. It is our shared will – and our shared responsibility – to build a society that knows neither privilege nor disadvantage. It is a society where those who have much are willing to share with those who have little. It is a society where every person, regardless of race or sex or circumstance, may experience the fundamental necessities of a decent, dignified life.

Today, let us declare before the esteemed witnesses gathered here that such a South Africa is possible. Let us declare our shared determination that we shall end poverty in South Africa within a generation. Let us declare that when we gather to celebrate the 50th year of our freedom there shall no longer be any person in this land who is unable to meet their basic needs.

That there should be no child who goes hungry. Every school child will be able to read, and every person who wants to work will have a reasonable opportunity to find employment.

As we make this bold declaration, we are aware of the depth of the challenges we must confront. We are aware of the debilitating legacy of our past, nor the many difficulties of the present. To achieve the South Africa we want will demand an extraordinary feat of human endeavour. The road ahead will be difficult. We will have to use our courage, wisdom and perseverance to achieve the South Africa we want. It will require an ambition that is rare….”

There it was, the blood, sweat, and tears moment.

He then added the call to arms:

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. Let us forge a compact for growth and economic opportunity, for productive lands and viable communities, for knowledge, for innovation, and for services that are affordable, accessible and sustainable.

Let us forge a compact for an efficient, capable and ethical state, a state that is free from corruption, for companies that generate social value and propel human development, for elected officials and public servants who faithfully serve no other cause than that of the public. We must be a society that values excellence, rewards effort and hard work and rejects mediocrity.”

This man very clearly has a much better speechwriter than his predecessor ever did. Maybe he even fashioned a good chunk of it himself.

Yes, his words could be stirring; but for any specifics of the “how” or the “what”, Ramaphosa’s nation will still need to wait until later on for all the vital, corroborative detail. It was almost as if this address was intended to be his final campaign speech (against the Zuptas?) in which all the hopeful, visionary poetry was recited, while the more boring (but still vital) prose comprising tax code and budgetary changes will come later.

So far at least, there wasn’t even much of a hint about the already promised, imminent changes to the size and composition of the Cabinet (save for a reported announcement some time later this week), or his vision for how this new Cabinet configuration would deliver the goods on the poetry of this speech. For all of that, Ramaphosa’s nation must still wait for the next chapter in this promised national renewal. DM


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