/ 15 February 2024

Ramaphosa’s SA: Fairy tale or fable?

Graphic Tl Calland Ramasona Twitter 1200px
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Cyril Ramaphosa has laid the groundwork for what might become known as the “Tintswalo election” — a risky but probably necessary strategy. The president’s eighth State of the Nation address pushed forcefully against the grain of his record in office and the widely held view that he has failed to deliver the renewal he promised when he took power in 2018. 

Ramaphosa’s mission — or that of his speechwriters — was to do two interdependent things: close the credibility gap with regard to his performance as head of government and lay a sufficiently sturdy platform for the election campaign that will commence in earnest very soon. 

There is understandable cynicism about Ramaphosa. The numbers are against him — almost all the most important metrics, from unemployment to the fiscal deficit, have worsened in the past six years. 

State of the Nation addresses need to be judged against two main yardsticks: speechcraft and statecraft. This one attracted relatively little attention; commentary on mainstream and social media was muted. 

Too many of Ramaphosa’s recent State of the Nation addresses have been cut-and-paste renditions of promises that have amounted to little more than hot air or, in the case of spurious appointment of unnecessary ministers of electricity and high-speed trains, symptoms of the absurdity that is the hallmark of governments that have run out of ideas as they enter the final phase of their natural lives. 

The first State of the Nation address of 2024 (there will be another when the new government forms after the election) largely avoided that trap. Besides, there was little point in offering a laundry list of objectives when he has only a matter of weeks left in the Union Buildings. 

The problem is that the achievements of the Ramaphosa government are substantial but they are neither exciting nor complete. His mission of rebuilding the state after the ravages of the Zuma era is the task of Sisyphus. Pushing a heavy ball of reform and re-structuring up a steep hill, made even more steeper by events — Covid-19 — and people — his vindictive predecessor — over which he has had no, or little, control. 

Any fair and reasonable assessment of Ramaphosa’s performance as president has to take these contextual factors into account. He had an impossible task — to prove a counter-factual — that things would be even worse were he not at the helm of government. 

Yet, he attempted exactly that, pointing to the external factors, such as the global economy and the war in Ukraine, as well as the harm caused by state capture, as mitigation for the slow pace of his reforms and his government’s attempts to ignite economic growth. 

Given the short-term record of his administration, it was inevitable that Ramaphosa would employ a wider narrative arc, invoking the spirit of 1994, the ethos of Mandela and the transformation of South Africa from the apartheid era.

He painted a picture of how the life of “Tintswalo” — a girl born just before 1994 — was so different to what it would have been under apartheid. Tintswalo grew up in a house built by the state for poor South Africans, with water and electricity provided. She benefited from the child support grant to complete her schooling and obtained a tertiary education through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.  

This was excellent speechcraft. But was it a fairy tale or a fable? 

The answer depends on whether you are a Tintswalo or one of the 9 million unemployed. 

Snide responses from well-off white people merely show how little they understand their country and the fundamental significance of advancing from the cruel discrimination of apartheid. 

Ramaphosa was speaking directly to the wider black middle class, those whose lives have materially improved since 1994, reminding them of the advantages and opportunities that the ANC government has brought to their lives. 

As such, this was the opening salvo of the ANC’s election campaign. It will seek to make the most of the 30 years of democracy anniversary in April to turbo-boost its campaign.

There were numerous references to human rights, constitutional freedoms and the rule of law. For all his weaknesses, Ramaphosa is a committed constitutionalist; his government has not taken the lurch towards a more populist and authoritarian right that many have around the world. 

Policy-wise there was almost nothing to report. A new climate change fund will be established with public and private money to help respond to the harm caused by extreme weather events and the section on the green economy showed Ramaphosa’s conviction that this is the way to go. 

The president understands the opportunity presented by the global green economic revolution. The trade, industry and competition department, under minister Ebrahim Patel, is putting in place some of the necessary building blocks to exploit the opportunity. 

Despite the foot-dragging obstructionism of energy minister Gwede Mantashe, there is a structural reform programme underway in the energy sector, alongside a complex “just energy transition” from coal to renewables. Unless it is derailed by a new government after the elections, these will be looked back at as major accomplishments. 

The energy sector reforms will inevitably lead to the end of load-shedding — it is a matter of time now — and concomitantly, the ability of the state to implement the practical dimension of the reforms, such as the extension of the national electricity transmission grid. 

This is not headline-grabbing progress. There is simply not enough good news to change the overarching narrative, which is that the ANC is failing. 

The majority of South Africans are hurting; the economy has stagnated. Hence, the ploy of invoking the spirit of 1994 might not work. ANC voters might continue to stay at home, as they did in the local government election 2021. 

This could even prove to be Ramaphosa’s last State of the Nation address, depending on precisely what happens in the election. 

And Jacob Zuma continues to be a thorn in Ramaphosa’s side. In July 2021, Zuma and his loyalist supporters, including family members, encouraged the throwing of a lighted match onto the dry tinder of the country’s socio-economic precarity. The riots that ensued caused death and destruction, as well as huge harm to the economy and South Africa’s investment prospects.

Now, Zuma has shown that all his talk of dedication to the ANC was just talk — this is a ruthless, as well as selfish, narcissist who will do anything to protect his own venal interests. 

His gameplan with the new, fake MK party is transparently cynical — to knock a percentage point or two off of the ANC’s overall tally so as to harm Ramamphosa to the extent that he might not be able to stay in power. 

Look at it this way, if Zuma’s latest devious ploy succeeds in attracting, say, 10% in his home province of KZN, and those voters vote the same in the national ballot, it could take the ANC from 48% to 46%. 

Anything under 47% and Ramaphosa is vulnerable, not least because every single percentage point below 50% means the coalition negotiations required for the ANC to remain in office will be that much more politically complex and fraught. 

With the broad arc of pre- and post-1994 history as the backdrop for its campaign, the ANC will seek to persuade the electorate that it remains the most credible defender of black voter interests across the land. In other words, while other parties seek to escape the clutches of “identity politics”, the ANC will have no choice but to run a campaign that seeks to reinforce identification with the ANC of old.  

In that sense, the ANC has become a conservative party — it wants, and needs, to conserve its reputation for transformation from the 1990s. Unable to make real progress with improving the lives of the current generation of the working class, it must now lean heavily on political mythology.

ANC voters are dying but not being born. The younger you are, the less likely you are to identify with the party. And, as a percentage of those eligible to vote, the number of  unregistered young voters continues to grow. 

The Tintswalos listening to Ramaphosa might have been persuaded. The fact that there could have been so many more Tintswalos is the issue that should define the upcoming election. 

Ramaphosa was appealing for more time to complete his rebuilding project, for a second term, and for continued trust in his leadership. 

Richard Calland is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance, an emeritus associate professor at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.