South Africa: After Biding His Time, CR Shows How Politics Is Done


CR's strategy is to pull diverse actors into robust delivery processes, amid political trade-offs and consensus. It may be new to SA politics, but it's what he has been doing all his life and what sets him apart as a politician, says Richard Calland.

Sitting in the seat in the media box from which I have watched 22 of the last 23 SONAs, it was clear that the mood in the House was quite different from any of the last decade. Instead, there was a retro-1990s feel to the house - full of pride and emotion, and a sense of liberation.

ANC backbench MPs seemed to have been unburdened, while much of the opposition were unable to resist the sentimental pull.

Even the EFF, an uncomfortable thorn in the side of the occasion in recent years, joined the celebration, with its leader Julius Malema exchanging convivial banter with the newly elected President, Cyril Ramaphosa, and breaking out into song at the end.

The EFF had had to adjust its tactics, having misread the mood of the country the previous day when walking out of the National Assembly during Ramaphosa's election.

Ramaphosa has had to hide his talents under a bushel named Zuma. But now that he, too, is liberated, his skills can shine.

Zuma's departure represents a huge challenge to the opposition. Where and how to aim its attacks now? Looking down from my seat at the heads of the DA below, the main opposition were unusually silent during the first half of the address.

The heckling when it finally started to emerge was lacklustre at best. "What's your plan?" is not a punch that will land on a President who has been in office for less than 24 hours and who will continue to enjoy a significant post-Zuma tailwind for a few months more.

A better line would probably be to focus on the possible superfluity of summits and 'talk shops'. Having already announced four summits, conferences and working groups - on jobs, on investment, on youth, and on the social sector, when he began to address the digital industrial revolution, there were cynical heckles from the DA backbenches: "Not another summit!"

A day later, former DA advisor Gareth van Onselen penned a petty piece complaining about the lack of detail or concrete outcomes in Ramaphosa's speech.

But this misunderstands both the purpose of a SONA and the new President. SONA should not be a "detailed action plan", but a statement of strategic intent.

To succeed it needs to offer to the public a convincing exposition about the state of the nation - a socio-economic diagnostic analysis that resonates with the lives of people across the land and which shows that their government cares as well as understands their daily predicaments.

But, yes, it also needs to offer a lucid statement of intent about what - in broad, accessible brush strokes - the government intends to do to address the biggest challenges that confront the nation.

In this regard, it needs to explain the 'why' more than the 'what' (with a good dose of the 'how' thrown in for good measure).

So, in the current circumstances, what Ramaphosa had to do was to demonstrate why his administration will be different than what preceded it (even though he had served under Zuma as his deputy). Hence it was strong and clear and, to my mind convincing, on the subject of corruption. He sounded like he meant business.

In the case of SOE mis-governance, he identified the problem very precisely: governing boards behaving like executive committees and getting involved in operational matters including tenders and procurement, which is where the corruption bites. This will change, Ramaphosa said, and those board members that don't understand this point will be removed.

This is something the government can act on fast. And the fact that in the case of Eskom, Ramaphosa has already acted makes his statement of intent all the more credible.

As to the plan to make a plan - or, rather, plans to make plans - that is a strategic approach. And it plays to his strengths: namely, to pull key social and economic actors into robust processes that will deliver practical action, based on common purpose, a clear understanding of the trade-offs and consensus about the way forward.

This is what he has been doing all his life. This is what sets him apart as a politician. Admittedly, for newcomers, these attributes may be not be known or understood: Ramaphosa has had to hide his talents under a bushel named Zuma.

But now that he, too, is liberated, his skills can shine. This does not mean that anyone should be any less demanding of him. In a year's time, these various summits, processes, commissions and new advisory institutions must have delivered solid outcomes - fresh ideas, new leadership, different policies, and defined agreements about common action to which all the protagonists can be held to account and which can also be put before the electorate next year so that it can decide whether or not the ANC deserves another chance.

Ramaphosa would expect nothing less. Having during the Zuma years played the man for so long, now the opposition is going to have to play the ball. It will be refreshing to be discussing policy and implementation again, rather than state capture and corruption. South African politics has entered a new era, with new uncertainties and brand new opportunities and challenges, on all sides, including for parliament.

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