Last night, as this paper went to print, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his fourth State of the Nation address. The grave national condition will probably see public commentators viewing the speech through a disaffected lens. Delayed redress of state capture is stoking the nation into desperation. The public is increasingly demanding executive leadership, not grand narratives.
Although executive action is certainly due, our delicate national moment requires keen perception and enduring composure. Beware the simplified persuasions that prey on frustrations and feed easy material urges. Instead of getting hot under the collar, the public and commentators should regard this address as an opportunity to appreciate the president’s strategy.
By surveying Ramaphosa’s regime of persuasion, we equip ourselves with the calculated perception needed to keep him to account. We also come to understand the critical role that he wishes the public to play in restoring and advancing the teetering republic.
Towards a capable state
Ramaphosa’s Gordian Knot of leading both party and state requires him to persuade diverse actors of a single set of values and goals. The president is a constitutionalist. He has referred to the Constitution as “the birth certificate of the nation”, “the repository of everything, everything that I ever dreamt of, that I ever wanted in my life”. This advance of the Constitution empowers the state while not alienating the ANC; he leads the party through leading the nation.
This is the inverse of former president Jacob Zuma, who captured and subjugated the state to the material goals of his radical transformation faction. Ramaphosa’s strategic end is the capable state. Such a state gives effect to the norms and aspirations of the Constitution.
Ramaphosa extends on Nelson Mandela’s embodiment of reconciliation, to inspire the nation to civic virtue and political participation — to embody the republic. “The strength of doing this,” says the president, “is to be able to bring together South Africans who have a contribution to make, who have views to put across so that we engage everyone and come out with the best solutions ever. And this is what I will say defines my style of leadership, which was Madiba’s style of leadership.”
It remains to be seen whether Ramaphosa can imitate Mandela’s executive decisiveness. But then, Ramaphosa’s ANC is not the ANC of Mandela.
The journey towards the capable state commenced with Ramaphosa’s declaration of the “new dawn”. The “defining thing about the new dawn must be our ability to govern well, to create a capable state”. The new dawn presents a vision through ideals. It forms a counterpoint to the millenarianism of the radical transformation faction. Instead of seeking pre-configured outcomes through radicalism, it returns the national focus to the aspirational approach and long-term goals set out in the Constitution.
Ramaphosa’s style is to mobilise constitutional values. His re-introduction of vision into modern South African political strategy and discourse has caught the public and political establishment off-guard. The impalpable proposals made in his post-election State of the Nation address, such as his dream for a new city and high-speed trains, have been heavily criticised. Departing from Zuma’s multicomponent list of short-term solutions to complex problems, Ramaphosa has employed the address for its original purpose, to state the nation; presenting a ceremonial reconstitution of the nation and its values. These are not mere optics; they seek to invoke the republic towards a “dream we can all share and participate in building”.
This approach illustrates what biographer Anthony Butler has defined as Ramaphosa’s visionary pragmatism. According to Butler, Ramaphosa, unlike many in the ANC, “could not commit his imagination to Marxist revolutionary fantasies. He worked hard to create institutions of self-government … demonstrating an ingrained pragmatism.”
Ramaphosa’s role in founding the National Union of Mineworkers, in negotiating towards the political transition and in chairing the Constitutional Assembly are examples where institutions were formed to give momentum to ideals. Ramaphosa’s facilitation of negotiations towards the promulgation of the National Minimum Wage Act presents an institutionalising mechanism to stabilise South Africa’s strained labour market.
The value of the national minimum wage does not lie in its monetary value. Instead, says the president, the “national minimum wage is a stepping stone towards having a living wage”. It presents the “triumph of co-operation over conflict, of negotiation over confrontation … it could only be resolved through negotiation.”
Finding consensus through compromise bolsters a leader while binding stakeholders to apportioned claims. Facilitation towards the Act demonstrates Ramaphosa’s leadership. He moves after framing and steering the negotiation. To corral stakeholders into tangible commitments he must first expedite his side of the agreement; cutting red tape, ensuring policy certainty and streamlining government.
Stabilisation and re-capacitation of state institutions have been core to his strategy. Instead of imposing authority, he has charged panels consisting of experts to select the new heads of critical organisations such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Revenue Service. Although the process has been slow, a new meritocratic best-practice, structured around consensus, is being built. Critically institutions, not individuals are being empowered.
Appeals such a the “new dawn” and “thuma mina (send me)” aim to enjoin South Africans as active participants in national accord. But the role of the ruling party in corrupting the national condition has corroded the public’s appetite for consensus. This has translated into the critique of Ramaphosa as dithering and weak. Though greater decisiveness would be welcomed, it is imperative to remember that it is the ruling party that fills the presidency. It is the ANC that Ramaphosa must serve first to keep him in power. It is for this reason that he charges: “I’d rather be seen as a weak president than to split the ANC.”
A renewed social compact
With a frenzied ANC filled with Zuma acolytes, Ramaphosa has turned to sentimentality and a sense of achievement to inspire belief among a disillusioned public. He bridges the recent malaise by recalling the unprecedented transition to democracy and the concomitant social compact entered into by South Africans at large. A social compact demands subordination to the public interest; everybody contributes to enabling the capable state. The recent proposal from trade union federation Cosatu to assist with Eskom’s debt provides a fine example.
By imploring the republic to stand and work together, Ramaphosa opposes the fraying of the political settlement and national accord. New social compacts promise remedial action to the increasing sentiment that constitutionalism is under threat.
Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas has suggested that outright cynicism, “which views the 1994 consensus as a carve-up among the elites”, has overtaken the nostalgic “rainbow nation, emblematic of a time when South Africans broke out of their narrow ideological straitjackets and placed the national interest above all else”; “the 1994 consensus has reached its sell-by date. In fact, it is unravelling.”
Jonas promotes transformation through the Constitution as a mechanism to repair the damaged state. “A new consensus”, says Jonas, “will require new levels of leadership vigour … Without a new vision of where we are going … our new consensus will be stillborn.”
It is this vision and vigour that Ramaphosa’s strategic communications aim to build. His State of the Nation addresses (as did Mandela’s) do not simply lay out plans. Instead, his messages embody a long-term vision. They are motivations towards republican action and the engendering of a capable state; campaigns to stimulate and persuade citizens to embody national values and forge towards achieving the national ends.
As we reflect on this year’s address, let us not simply see it for its pageantry. Let us instead heed its motivational call to contribute towards achieving the capable state.
Klaus Kotzé is the AW Mellon-UCT postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies, Law Faculty, University of Cape Town