Opinionista Judith February 19 February 2018

Thuma mina! The ‘nearly man’ rises to lift South Africa’s mood

The Zuma Years are finally over. Gone is the venal president, the corrupt man who lied to Parliament and laughed in the face of every allegation made against him.

In his maiden State of the Nation Address on Friday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa was keen to draw a bright line between his and the Zuma administration. And so, South Africa is on a different path now, one that feels challenging but somehow lighter all the same. The mood within the parliamentary precinct had a similar breeziness about it and we all felt goosebumps as the band struck the first chords of the national anthem and our flag fluttered in the Cape wind. It had been a very long nine years.

As President Ramaphosa came to the podium to deliver his SONA, one could almost sense the sigh of relief that this sitting would proceed uninterrupted. Finally it was about getting down to the business of governance and rebuilding our country.

Until now, Ramaphosa has been the “nearly man” of South African politics, but it seemed as if he had been preparing for Friday night all his life.

As expected, the economy took centre stage. Ramaphosa knows that our unemployment figure, currently sitting at 26.7%, together with high levels of inequality, is a stumbling block to social stability. He proposed a raft of measures including a president’s economic advisory council, a jobs summit and a conference looking to improve investment and business confidence in South Africa.

Brand SA has taken a beating and Ramaphosa needs to get business and labour on board if we are to succeed in making any significant dent in the unemployment rate. The social compact, all but broken, will need to be restored.

Much work will need to be done because sentiment and technocracy alone are not enough to save the day. The kitty is bare and our debt-to-GDP ratio is staggering. The excess and ill discipline of the Zuma years will lag for years to come and Ramaphosa will have an uphill battle trying to rescue this flagging economy and ensuring decent growth through consistent and clear policy.

But perhaps it was what he said about corruption that stood out most. Ramaphosa was quite clearly putting his corrupt colleagues on notice when he talked about bringing “decency and integrity” back to the state. His focus on fixing State-owned Enterprises is appropriate. Boards would no longer be involved in procurement and external audit standards would be improved.

He had some strong words on Sassa and SARS. On Sassa he took personal responsibility to ensure that no one stood in the way of delivering social grants to the most vulnerable. It is no wonder Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini was absent on the evening. On SARS, his comments about tax morality were telling and could have come straight out of the Pravin Gordhan playbook. SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane has been implicated in corruption and it is clear that the commission of enquiry Ramaphosa announced will be important in understanding underperformance at SARS.

So, Ramaphosa hit all the right notes and laid out a coherent, cohesive vision for the future, which included leaner government and a more capable state. Ambitious yes, impossible, no – if the right people are appointed to restore discipline to government departments. One of the abiding failures of South Africa is a public service that vacillates between careless neglect and downright callousness. Ask the family of Michael Komape or the Life Esidimeni victims. There is much to fix.

And so, while State of the Nation addresses are about vision and detail, they also set the tone for national life and debate. And it was the tone of the speech that provided much comfort and a shift from the toxicity and the ennui of the Zuma years. We know what Zuma broke and so we know what has to be fixed. Finally it would seem that we have a president who is willing to engage with all sectors of society and is unafraid to deal logically with our challenges head-on. This makes a change from the illogic of the Zuma years when swimming pools became fire-pools, falsehoods were spun into truths and the corrupt had a free pass.

At the moment, it is probably true to say that most South Africans are prepared to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt. But as a wily strategist, he will know that he has limited time to make early gains and to lead the ANC to an election victory in 2019. His early Cabinet choices will provide further insight into his thinking on governance and integrity. Ramaphosa has to save the state but he also has to save the party. That’s a tall order given the corruption and patronage so pervasive within the ANC.

On that front, his main challenge will be his party Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, who is implicated in corruption, and Magashule’s deputy, the equally toxic Jessie Duarte. The honeymoon will be short. Marikana will come back to haunt him and already criticism has been levelled against him for even being seen walking on the Sea Point promenade with Trevor Manuel.

He is criticised for being urbane and for his relationship with capital. How can he be a “man for the people”?, some ask. It is helpful to bear in mind that Zuma, the traditionalist who styled himself as “one of us”, plunged our economy into ruin, left it with a higher rate of unemployment than when he entered office, and saddled us with debt. We could do worse things than have a president who aims to read 50 books a year.

So there will be detractors and stumbling blocks, but no matter, Friday was a good day for our country.

While Ramaphosa may have used the “velvet glove” to navigate internal ANC politics and oust Zuma, what the Zuma years have shown us is that South Africa’s people are resilient. We must not suspend our judgment, however, and we need to think carefully about those years, how they happened and how to prevent such capture of the state. Civil society activists and the media in particular will continue to hold Ramaphosa to account for the implementation of his promises. Even during times of euphoria, the price of freedom is still eternal vigilance.

But it feels as if there is space for us all to play our part again in the rebuilding of our country. As Ramaphosa himself said, quoting the late Hugh Masekela, “Now is the time for each of us to say, ‘Send me!’” Thuma mina! DM

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