/ 27 February 2024

Ramaphosa’s ANC: bubblegum or iconic pop?

South Africa's African National Congress Manifesto Launch
Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's president, during the African National Congress (ANC) party manifesto launch at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. South Africa's ruling African National Congress said it will step up efforts to create jobs, grow the economy and increase access to welfare grants and health care as it kicked off its campaign for an election that will the sternest test yet of its three decades in power. Photographer: Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So is Cyril Ramaphosa, ipso facto, the ANC shallow? Is Ramaphosa a populist par excellence, essentially a marketing gimmick with one forgettable bubblegum hit after another? So, yesterday it’s Thuma Mina and today it’s Tintswalo — a fictional person born in 1994 whose life is eminently better than her parents who lived through apartheid South Africa.

Is Ramaphosa the best politician South Africa has produced? Does he have the gift of the gab, with the ability to find the glib popular phrase that fits snugly into a X hashtag trend? 

In his maiden speech as president in 2018 he famously quoted Afro-jazz legend Hugh Masekela’s song Thuma Mina, which became the hallmark of the first part of his caretaker presidency. 

Thabo Mbeki captured South Africa’s leap into democracy by reciting his “I Am an African” speech at the adoption of the Constitution in 1996. Mbeki’s words resonate today and ably define the ANC’s radical philosophy of non-racialism. But I doubt anyone, even the most enthusiastic of Ramaphosa supporters, will be able to recite even one phrase of the Thuma Mina speech, other than to say, “Thuma mina, send me”!

Is Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina like Britney Spears’s pop hit Oops … I Did It Again, a forgettable bubblegum pop song — chew it now just to spit it out later? Or are the matters he is raising more substantial, like Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special, which even years later still resonates. Will we look back at hits such as Tintswalo because they have become as iconic as Michael Jackson’s Pretty Young Thing

Do we dismiss Ramaphosa’s caution about an economic backlash as politicking? We should be wary that the ANC, in years to come, does not exploit the expected backlash against South Africa because of its progressive stance on Palestine as an excuse for the possible dismal performance of the economy. Regardless of South Africa’s bravery in taking the government of Israel to the International Court of Justice, on contravening the Convention on Genocide, being applauded by the citizens of all the major Western countries, we must acknowledge that the fractured factional politics of the US interprets SA’s independent streak as a danger to its global hegemony.

In an US election year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has already begun passing a spiteful piece of legislation calling on the US to review its relationship with South Africa. 

Of course, we have had our usual Western apologists, self-styled as realists, in our political milieu telling the ANC to sacrifice the lives of Palestinian children and women so the US can continue to export sub-standard chicken to South Africa through the sterile African Growth and Opportunity Act. 

As much as the cat seems to be out of the bag on the possible senility of US President Joe Biden, we should know that a hyper-sensitive Donald Trump might be an even worse prospect when it comes to South Africa exercising its independence and sovereignty. As US Democratic Party luminary and former Speaker of the American congress Nancy Pelosi has already signalled, the US government regards anyone calling for a ceasefire in Palestine as doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

At the same time, the Tories in the UK, under the ineffectual Rishi Sunak, lurch from one crisis to the next and it looks to all and sundry that, even if Labour put up a scarecrow, they would still win the election this year. 

Labour under Keir Starmer has not only abandoned all pretence of being a political party nominally on the left of the political spectrum but has made its support of the genocidal and fascist Israeli government a fundamental part of their party’s character. Asking a Starmer Labour Party to abandon the government of Benjamin Netanyahu would be akin to asking the pope to move Sunday mass to Wednesday! 

The state of US and European party politics must be a concern for the entire world.

The harbour tugboat that will feel out the water on the punishment of South Africa will not only come from the UK and the US, but also Germany. 

Germany’s collective feelings of guilt about their genocidal intent in World War II has meant they seem almost sociopathic in their effort to show unconditional support for Israel. Right-wing German funding organisations based in South Africa, joined by left-wing ones, such as Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, have begun warning South African NGOs that if they support Palestinian liberation, especially if they speak up against Israel’s maniacal programme in Palestine, they risk losing their funding.   

So what if German companies such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz decide to roll back some of their export production lines in Gqeberha and East London as a precursor to moving out completely? It will have a devastating effect on those cities. We cannot merely lament such a development. 

Ramaphosa has already publicly cautioned us about an economic backlash and therefore we must hope that the ANC has initiated discussions with other global vehicle manufacturers to establish plants in those cities to mitigate the damage if the German companies downsize. 

As we all know, Chinese motor vehicle manufacturers, in particular, as well as Korean motor vehicle and engineering companies, have already begun competing with American and European brands in Africa. 

We also expect the ANC to have plans to lead South Africa into the green economy. The Industrial Development Corporation and Public Investment Corporation, especially, should be purchasing substantial shares in platinum group of metals mining companies. 

The government should give licences to companies to produce and store hydrogen fuel, while we incentivise adaptation of current fuel stations to allow hydrogen vehicles. And we need to embark upon similar business adaptation programmes in the mobile fuel energy value chain, as well as in the design, development and manufacturing of hydrogen vehicle engines. 

If the ANC does not undertake epoch-changing projects such as the above suggestions, it will be as if they are not listening to their own warnings, which Ramaphosa has been raising. If that is the case, then it is better that we back off now from supporting the Palestinians rather than sit quietly and wait for economic genocide. 

The ANC (and Ramaphosa) has to be more substantial than that. Otherwise Tintswalo is just eyewash. 

It could be argued that it is being used to get us to focus on our lives having improved exponentially and materially since our democratic dispensation and take away attention from the leadership not believing that they can defeat the demons of unemployment, poverty and inequality.   

Generally speaking, the ANC has remained our only hope, even while it disappoints us. Maybe we can be accused of allowing the ANC and Ramaphosa to tug at our heartstrings, with their revolutionary stance on Palestine and reminding us of Thuma Mina and Tintswalo. 

But we still expect an ANC that is serious about tackling the real problems we are facing and not just about filling stadiums, cool posters and catchy phrases. There is nothing wrong with supporting the ANC, voting for it and vehemently criticising it — except if this is all you do. You have to remind the ANC that they must come up with ideas, because too many of their comrades are way too enamoured with the internal machinations of the party.

We expect an ANC that has plans that are not just political but are squarely focused on eradicating poverty, unemployment and inequality. An ANC victory that is focused on defeating unemployment, poverty and inequality is a victory for South Africa. 

Any political party other than the ANC, which makes promises of change, knows that it will never get a chance to implement them. Coalitions of convenience will have to pander to the most regressive policies of the smaller parties just to remain in power. 

Those political parties and leaders are the ones playing with our emotions and are into the competition of filling stadiums, coming up with meaningless catchy phrases and toying with our emotions. 

The 2024 elections are about the ANC and the people of South Africa — no one else!  

Donovan E Williams, a social commentator.