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After the Bell: Ramaphosa’s Rubicon — take special note of what the President doesn’t say

After the Bell: Ramaphosa’s Rubicon — take special note of what the President doesn’t say
President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives at City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa for the State of the Nation Address on 9 February 2023. (Photo: GCIS)

There is an old journalist joke that goes like this: A cub reporter was given a super-special assignment – cover the arrival of the magnificent QE2 ocean liner at Cape Town harbour for the first time. A crowd was expected and there would be festivities. The reporter duly went out and came back dejected. ‘No story,’ he told the news editor, who was aghast. ‘What happened?’ the news editor asked. ‘The ship sank,’ the reporter said.

Often we miss really important events that don’t happen because we are so focused on what did. The simple definition of history is the study of past events. But why does it not include the study of things that could have happened, but didn’t? Of course, sometimes it does. But generally, we default, for obvious reasons, to the observable sequence of events.

But there are times when what didn’t happen completely overwhelms what did. When I was a young reporter, it just so happened that then Prime Minister PW Botha’s Rubicon speech was delivered across the road from the office where I worked at the Natal Witness in the Pietermaritzburg town hall. It was above my pay grade to be working on the story, but still, the moment was palpable. A lot was expected from Botha, but as we all now know, the speech was a damp squib.

Yet, I remember we had a little display area in our newsroom where five or six newspapers from around the country were added every day. The day after the speech, the headline of every newspaper, bar one, trumpeted some aspect of what Botha had said.

“I believe we have crossed the Rubicon, Botha says,” was one headline, as I recall.

The exception was my own paper. Our headline was, “Botha fails to cross the Rubicon.”

We had a very smart night editor at the time, Martin Williams, who later became editor of the Citizen. He and the political editor looked at the speech and noticed immediately what wasn’t there, as opposed to what was.

This column will appear just a few hours before President Cyril Ramaphosa gives his State of the Nation Address; I invite you to join me in noticing not only what he does say, but what he doesn’t.

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My colleague Stephen Grootes made the point in his analysis on Thursday morning that an odd contradiction has emerged in SA’s politics. 

“There can be no doubt that Ramaphosa is more powerful within the ANC now than at any time since becoming deputy leader in 2012. And yet expectations around the Sona and what he will announce have never been so low.”

The reason is simple: there is a yawning gap between what the ANC leader of South Africa says and what actually happens.

Business Day editor-at-large Peter Bruce makes roughly the same point in his column. The selection of a new Cabinet could easily communicate a new dynamic, but “Ramaphosa defiantly will not make the choices”, he says, pointing out that this time last year, Ramaphosa promised a “social compact” within 100 days. That, of course, did not happen. Perhaps it will be announced tonight; we will see.

The difference is that the tectonic plates of politics have moved. The previous explanation for Ramaphosa’s lack of action was his desire to hold his crumbling and fractious party together, which necessitated putting up with a whole bunch of nay-sayers and internal critics with one eye on their own advancement.

But the situation is different now, because two things have changed.

First, his position within the party is massively strengthened, as Grootes has outlined. But the second thing is arguably even more important. In the inimitable words of no less a person than the Commissioner of the SA Revenue Service, Edward Kieswetter, the people of South Africa are “gatvol”.

If, in these new circumstances, Ramaphosa forces us to notice what was not announced tonight, trust me on this, the judgment of history is going to be harsh. BM/DM

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