The ANC leader also called on delegates on Friday to send a “clear and positive” message to the country by taking decisions which would help rebuild the ruling party – and through it the government – and turn around its waning electoral performance.
The conference, which runs until Sunday, is aimed at checklisting progress on implementing ANC policy resolutions in both the party and the government since the last national conference in 2017 and at fine-tuning policy recommendations to be tabled at the next national conference in December.
Major battles are expected over the step-aside policy – which has seen high-profile leaders charged with corruption barred from standing for election – the economic policy and energy, with several provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, leading the pushback.
Despite concerns by the ANC leadership that delegates from KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces might embarrass him by singing songs in defence of corruption-charged former president Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa delivered his hour-long address with no heckling or booing from the floor.
Apparently gaining some confidence from the absence of disruptions, Ramaphosa said many in the media had expected this to be a conference “where we fight amongst ourselves and differ widely on a variety of matters of politics and ideology”.
“We will demonstrate, in accordance with ANC tradition, that where we might have different views and approaches on various matters, we are always able to build consensus and emerge with coherent policy positions,” he said.
“This conference needs to send a clear and positive message about our determination to address the challenges that face our people and country.”
The South African and ANC president said the governing party was at its weakest since coming to power in 1994 but still retained the ability to “turn things around” if it stayed on the path of dealing with corrupt elements, as well as boosting the capacity of the police, state security and the prosecuting authority.
Since 2017, there had been decisive measures against state capture, to rebuild state enterprises which had been looted, and to pursue those who had profited from their destruction.
He noted that the State Capture Commission – which had played a significant role in this process – had completed its work last month and the government had begun considering its findings and recommendations.
“We must ensure that we use the work of the State Capture Commission to make a decisive break with the era of state capture and that we adopt a comprehensive set of actions to prevent corruption and end state capture,” Ramaphosa said.
The government, he said, would finalise a national framework for professionalising the public sector, including merit-based recruitment and appointments, integrity testing for all recruits to the public service and curriculum development for the ongoing education of public servants.
Ramaphosa said the weaknesses in the party were illustrated by the levels of distrust, disillusionment and frustration expressed towards the ANC by ordinary people.
This had caused both a drop in votes and the distance between ANC public representatives and the people they were meant to serve.
The role of ANC branches had been reduced to nominating delegates for conferences and they had failed to play the role they were meant to in society.
Divisions in the ANC’s ranks were not about policies or ideology, but “are driven by the competition for positions, the contestation of structures and the pursuit of access to public resources”.
Ramaphosa said despite all this, there had been progress in rooting out corruption and ill-discipline in the party and in tackling factionalism.
“As we have done this, we have witnessed concerted attempts to sow division and
destabilise our organisation by forces intent on pursuing narrow interests. This has taken many forms, including the distortion of organisational processes, serious acts of social instability and criminality and sustained propaganda campaigns,” he said.
“This is the work of forces, both within our ranks and outside our movement, that are threatened by the process of renewal and rebuilding.”
Delegates, he said, carried the weight of history in ensuring that they ended corruption and patronage in the ANC and implemented the resolutions of the 2017 conference in doing this.
“On this, there can be no going back. There can be no compromise,” he said. “We cannot abandon our principled positions on corruption in pursuit of a false unity.”
Ramaphosa said the party should unite around its values, rather than individuals and self-interest, and its mission must be to come together against corruption, patronage and factionalism.
“The people of South Africa will not forgive us if we abandon the correct positions that
we have taken on confronting wrongdoing within our ranks. History will not forgive us,” he said.