Zuma’s failures drive Cyril’s rural campaign

Ramaphosa has kicked off his tenure as ANC president by heading out into the rural hinterland, meeting villagers and traditional leaders such as King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu in Willowvale in the Eastern Cape. (Lulamile Feni/Gallo Images/Sowetan)

Ramaphosa has kicked off his tenure as ANC president by heading out into the rural hinterland, meeting villagers and traditional leaders such as King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu in Willowvale in the Eastern Cape. (Lulamile Feni/Gallo Images/Sowetan)

The Buffalo from Soweto had arrived in rural South Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa set out at dawn on Tuesday for his first engagement with rural South Africans as the ANC’s president.

By dusk, he was still at it, captivating another audience, this time of more than 600 people, in a manner that in earlier years would only have been expected from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

Ramaphosa and the party’s new national officials were at the Mngqesha Great Place outside King William’s Town to hold talks with the amaRharhabe people’s Queen Noloyiso Sandile.

But his off-the-cuff speech in a police marquee afterwards had the village residents — from royalty to pensioners — hanging on his every word.

The new ANC president and his team asked the queen to help to manage the implementation of the party’s most controversial resolution from its national conference — the expropriation of land without compensation, said an ANC national executive committee (NEC) member accompanying the delegation.

Although Zuma is known to connect easily with rural South Africans, mostly because of lived experience and shared culture, Ramaphosa adopted a different strategy.

Zuma’s dismal record in government and the widespread belief that the ANC government has slid into corruption and inefficiency have laid the groundwork for Ramaphosa to connect with the same audience. The new ANC president reiterated his commitment to fighting corruption.

Unprepared remarks laden with warnings that “thieves” should start running immediately and the use of phrases such as “the real ANC” garnered the type of applause that made it seem as though Zuma himself was addressing the gathering.

“When we take out the money to do work, the money should not be stolen. We don’t want thieves who steal the people’s money. I don’t get along with thieves, I don’t. At all,” Ramaphosa exclaimed, to loud cheers and applause. “We have declared war on thieves. War has been declared. If you are a thief, start running now,” he said.

Despite the applause, the people of Mngqesha and surrounding villages in the Amathole basin are cautious and suspicious.

They’re concerned about unemployment, ever-increasing stock theft and police corruption, which includes police officers spending their shifts in the local taverns. The nearest police station for the 13 villages in the Amathole basin is 50km away.

“uMadiba [Nelson Mandela] gave us democracy. That was great. You see with [Thabo] Mbeki, I had a job. For eight years I was working and I built a house. But with Cyril I can say he is just another Zuma. They are the same because I still don’t have a job,” 54-year-old Mtase Toyiso told the Mail & Guardian at the police and community meeting in Mngqesha.

“If he gives me a job then he’s good but for now I don’t care about them,” he added.

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula organised the meeting as part of the police “Back to Basics” campaign. The South African Police Service set up a large marquee, provided food and the ANC handed out T-shirts bearing Ramaphosa’s face. Party and state events conveniently merged.

Thabo Mjongile, who is 35 years old, hasn’t worked for three years and left Dimbaza township near King William’s Town to return to his smallholding in Kwelerhane village, where he built a mud hut on his stand of land.

His parents were cattle farmers but Mjongile has only ever worked as a security guard.

“I built my own house but I need RDP housing. My house is not good and I’m not working. If I could buy cattle, I would do that, or farm cabbage and spinach. In this three years, every time I want a job I must be a security guard.

“But I have got my site. I need to use that land,” he said.

The decision by the ANC’s new leaders to start the year by visiting Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in KwaZulu-Natal and Xhosa King Zwelonke Sigcawu and Queen Sandile in the Eastern Cape was about exactly that: land.

“We do need to engage with the traditional leaders because there is a role that they play there. Sometimes people feel it’s a positive role, sometimes people feel it’s a negative role. Sometimes people feel that the land is sitting there and it’s not being distributed by them,” said NEC member Lindiwe Zulu.

“The one thing we cannot afford is to have land that is given back but not supported properly with the right plan. The [ANC land] resolution spoke about not disturbing the economy and food security but we also don’t want that to be an excuse … [The traditional leadership] has to be at the forefront of ensuring the land is properly used,” Zulu said.

Ramaphosa said agricultural production could be a driving force of the Eastern Cape economy. He had discussed this while flying by military helicopter from Willowvale to Mngqesha with ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe and ANC provincial chairperson Oscar Mabuyane, he said. Mabuyane’s popularity in the province seemed to overshadow even that of the top six.

“Agriculture in the Eastern Cape. It can be the number one sector of the economy [in the province]. When I buy cattle, I know the best cattle comes from here. The Eastern Cape has the most fertile soil. On the helicopter ride, we saw big swaths of land that are not being tilled. The land is just laying there. We need to reawaken agriculture and get the people to return to the land,” Ramaphosa said.

In the run-up to the ANC’s 2007 elections, a major part of Zuma’s campaign to replace former president Thabo Mbeki centred on his connection to the citizens of rural areas and underdeveloped parts of the country. Mbeki was perceived as an academic elitist who had lost his ability to communicate with the ANC’s rural support base.

At the ANC’s December conference last year, then secretary general Mantashe credited Zuma for his ability to communicate with the poorest South Africans and stressed the importance of this in politics.

It was no accident then that Ramaphosa’s first public engagements were right in the heart of Zuma’s constituencies.

On Tuesday, new ANC secretary general Ace Magashule said the visits to the kings and queens were about introducing the president and reconnecting the ANC with its roots.

“It’s not most of the time that we go to various rural communities, but here we are reconnecting with our ancestors … We thought the first thing we should do because our [former] presidents came from all these areas and some were traditional leaders, we should reconnect with our roots.”

At the meeting with Zwelithini on Sunday, the top six couldn’t match Zuma’s prowess with the traditional authority. ANC deputy president David Mabuza held the spear in the wrong hand and Ramaphosa and national chairperson Mantashe couldn’t quite get the steps right during the ingoma (the dance performed while holding the spear). Ramaphosa joked about this during the Mgqehsa visit.

The visit to Sigcawu on Tuesday morning was ceremonial. It was the first time the entire top echelon of ANC officials had visited the king and the interaction was dominated by talks about land — and reportedly a request to speed up the release of incarcerated abaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo.

Afterwards, Ramaphosa also addressed a small crowd of people who were brought together by the royal family.

Similarly, at Mngqesha Ramaphosa had an opportunity to meet the subjects of the kingdom.

The new ANC president has largely cast himself as an urban South African raised in Soweto, a place of transition from rural to city life for millions of migrating citizens. Even as a cattle farmer, Ramaphosa’s image is of a commercial farm owner and wildlife game breeder rather than the humble rural herder persona presented by Zuma.

Seemingly aware that he could never claim to be as connected to rural life as Zuma, Ramaphosa instead took swipes at the distinguishing characteristics of Zuma’s tenure at the helm of the party and the state.

“We want to make sure that the human resources we are going to deploy will not be the family of other influential people,” he said. “I will not be deploying any of my sons or family members. And therefore we should not be deploying our friends. We should be deploying people who know how to do the job.”

Ramaphosa’s use of his predecessor’s weaknesses in governance and ethics to appeal to Zuma’s power base in rural South Africa was a display of political strategy reminiscent of Nxamalala himself.

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