Without detracting from the content, the symbolism of the preceding months’ political drama loomed large as he spoke.
At the risk of repetition, this was a man who a year ago was battling to launch any kind of campaign against his arch-rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. And, while he managed to defeat her in December, it was a victory too close for comfort.
Ramaphosa therefore not only had to massage the still very raw political wounds within his address, he had to publicly commit to the directives from his own party on policy – particularly the ‘legacy’ albatross of free tertiary education and land expropriation without compensation.
The SONA also has to be viewed against a backdrop of real and tangible fight-back against graft and corruption, which just over the last few days has resulted in multiple arrests and warrants of arrest for one or more of the Gupta brothers among others.
The context is important because the old adage “You can only work with what you have” clearly held him back.
Considering this was a speech just 48 hours after the resignation of Jacob Zuma with its resultant scars and fissures still deeply embedded and festering, it was about as good as you could hope for.
The carefully worded references to the past “era of diminishing trust in public institutions and weakened confidence in leaders” epitomises this considered approach.
Here’s the thing: Ramaphosa is now head of an organisation that has seen its pragmatic centre severely weakened over the Zuma years. For almost a decade, the rot of patronage politics, rent-seeking and crony capitalism had taken root. And while this was reflected in disturbing increases in graft and corruption, it also manifested itself in party cadres reflecting these tendencies.
The worst effect of the Zuma years was to diminish the role of ANC centrists, replacing them with career cronyists who were motivated by creaming off as much value as they could from the state.
Ramaphosa’s ascent to power disrupts this. But those cadres can disrupt Ramaphosa too. Hence the tough managing feat that will require a slow but very deliberate replacement of those cadres with more ethical office bearers. This will start with the Cabinet reshuffle expected within days, but at the time of SONA, Ramaphosa was still largely talking to Jacob Zuma’s ANC.
Once he begins to transform and change the corporate culture of greed to service, it will be a very different ANC that would emerge – and potentially empower him to really move forward.
Similarly, for Ramaphosa the focus on economic transformation reflected the severe limitations of the current ANC. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet so eloquently said: “Now here is the rub.”
Ramaphosa remains hamstrung by the ANC’s market-unfriendly economic policies. Years of economic decline and leadership ineptitude did not result in an ANC readier to embrace the markets.
Instead, a rising resentment and bitterness towards the private sector and corporate interests has resulted in more radical rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in relations between the state and the private sector.
Conspiratorial theories (with racist undertones) of the underhand motivations of ‘white monopoly capitalism’ mushroomed under its chief benefactor, Jacob Zuma. The narrative became embedded within large parts of the ANC and is broadly manifest today.
To add to this difficulty, Ramaphosa is saddled with a core byproduct of populist policy-making, land expropriation without compensation.
That the dispossession of land for the majority of South Africans is one of apartheid’s most heinous legacies is a given, but the management of redress requires a much more considered approach than the revolutionary options presented by Ramaphosa which simply reflected the ANC’s internal party resolution.
Ramaphosa’s challenge will be to begin a very arduous process of shifting the narrative. He is well placed to begin a process of de-emphasising the demons of the free market with a view to restoring a more mutually beneficial approach. While this will take some courage, he did begin a shift in his SONA.
With multiple references to partnerships with the private sector and labour to resolve the economic challenges, Ramaphosa heralded an era of greater cooperation and inclusivity in decision-making.
This was perhaps one of the most important aspects of the speech. He was willing to look beyond the very narrow – and often debilitating – dictates of his own party’s policies towards accepting outside expert opinion.
Furthermore, Ramaphosa’s esteem within the broader South African and international business sector will mean he will not be short of expert help and advice. His challenge will be to massage a more market-friendly approach into the myopic politics of the ANC itself.
To this end, in SONA Ramaphosa announced the establishment of a “presidential economic advisory council” which is an important step in broadening the policy debate away from a purely ANC perspective.
Ramaphosa will have his work cut out in convincing his own party to accept this advice, but if anyone is well placed to strike a deal – and fully analyse the options before him – it is Ramaphosa himself.
Even more than these important, yet nuanced shifts, was what was not in the speech: the imminent Cabinet reshuffle. Once that is accomplished with the return of respected individuals to manage many non-performing ministries, that will begin factoring into the broader narrative renewal.
In SONA, Ramaphosa was speaking virtually as a one-man band. Imagine a row of talented ministers alongside him driving change. It would all look so much better.
SONA therefore hit the right notes, even if there was no ‘killer-punch’ to take away overnight. The composition of the ANC, its recent history and the realpolitik of internal political competition means the messenger (and reformer) has to tread carefully.
But the real take-away was that this was a speech delivered convincingly with deep underlying credibility. And that’s the real difference. When you believe the messenger, it changes your