The constant gardener

Gareth van Onselen writes on perpetually re-emerging "green shoots" of Ramaphosa's rhetoric


In an age of optimism, hopeful metaphors abound. In South Africa, they abound regardless. Typically, they are a product of the ANC’s millenarian worldview and, in Cyril Ramaphosa, the party has its latest prophet.

The President has produced some wonderfully captivating allusions, as he has spun his rhetorical web. Of them all - and underpinning them all - the idea of a “new dawn” has been preeminent. It hasn’t aged well but, as a marketing tool, it was hegemonic in its effect - a triumph of style over substance.

It was never alone though. Look a little closer and there is another omnipresent, hope-imbued metaphor; one that has served him just as well. It, however, seems timeless. “There are green shoots”, the President endlessly says - signs of economic recovery, and they must be nurtured. 

Ramaphosa is the constant gardener. Always there are “green shoots” of recovery. Always they are under threat. Always they must be nurtured. But never do they grow. 

The great fire

There is an argument to be made that no metaphor bears up to close examination. But then overuse invites interrogation. 

The thing about “green shoots” is that they are a natural response to ecological devastation. It is only after the ground has been burnt black that they appear. So Ramaphosa’s first problem is the tacit admission - one he balks at making in explicit terms - that some great fire decimated whatever economic forest the country had. 

That would be to his advantage, were he not one of the pyromaniacs responsible. But whatever his role in the great fire that raged from 2009 to his election as ANC President in December 2017, it was only once he ascended to the throne that he would turn to his horticultural thesaurus.

The first crop

The earliest on-record reference to “green shoots” from Ramaphosa, is his reply to parliamentary questions on 6 September 2017, as then Deputy President. Laying down the compost for his presidential campaign he would say, “We are constantly planting the seeds of future growth, and we are extremely encouraged by the green shoots that are steadily emerging and proving that we are on the right track.”

A week later, on 11 September 2017, he would say to investors, “Either we confront corruption decisively and deliberately and thereby nurture the green shoots of an economic recovery, or we allow corrupt practices to continue unchecked and consign our people to poverty for generations to come.” 

After he was elected South African President, on 15 February 2018, he would continue to water the rhetorical seeds he had planted.

“The South African economy is seeing the green shoots of an economic recovery,” he said on 14 March 2018, in response to questions to the president.

He was relentless, all the way up until the national elections in May 2019. And while the world itself - least of all the national economy – refused to bend to his metaphorical will, the story went on, even though it would never advance past the first chapter.

On the back of disappointing employment figures late in the year, the president would say, on 4 September 2019, “While the quarterly growth figures announced yesterday are encouraging – and may suggest the green shoots of recovery – the reality is that our economy is barely growing to address the challenges our country is currently facing.”

The second great fire

In 2020 a second great fire broke out. Only this one was not home grown. Whatever “green shoots” existed, real or imagined, they were totally eradicated. Today, the Covid-19 blaze is still raging white hot. 

It’s hard to argue Ramaphosa did not play his own small part in this fire too. He might not have lit the match, but through a series of draconian laws and regulations, his administration certainty doused the flames with petrol, at least as far as the economy went. The land was charred black once again. The “green shoots”, gone.

Gone but not forgotten. That’s the thing. Life finds a way. Political life too. And Ramaphosa was not done yet. His go-to metaphor, like the economy, would be reborn. “Even in our darkest hour,” he said on 20 July 2020, “we must look to these green shoots of renewal. They are the silver lining to the dark Covid-19 cloud.” 

The age of optimism, however, was dying. And real pressure was begin to tell. The metaphor was starting to unravel. A cloud can only have a silver lining in sunshine, not in the darkest hour. Pressure will do that to you. But he pressed on.

Presenting his economic recovery plan to a joint sitting of parliament, on 15 October 2020, he would say, “In the aftermath of a fire, green shoots begin to emerge. The ashes enrich the soil, and new life takes root to replace what was lost. Our country is emerging from one of the most difficult periods in living memory.” 

South Africa must have some of the most enriched soil in the world. One more great fire and we will be walking on pure fertiliser.

The second crop

Once again, “green shoots” were everywhere. Only this time, they were far more fragile.

By now, the “green shoots” mantra had been adopted by all-comers. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni would say in his 20 February 2019 budget speech, “Despite our best efforts, sometimes, ravages and risks such as pests or rot could attack our green shoots, but we must persevere; we must prune and pluck away at the rot, until there is growth.”

On 9 November 2020, the President would echo this, warning that, “A resurgence [of Covid-19] at any scale will not just dramatically reverse our health gains. It will choke the green shoots of economic recovery that have emerged, and take us back from spring to winter.” 

Not sure if you can choke a plant. If you can, the ANC will find a way. Sickness was ravaging humans and economic vegetation alike. But always, there were more “green shoots.”

Relatively better employment statistics in late 2020 saw Ramaphosa state on 12 November, “This shows that green shoots have emerged as economic restrictions were lifted and the epidemic brought under control.” And, again, on 9 December, he took comfort in the new economic data: “In recent months, encouraging green shoots have emerged which provide a foundation for economic reconstruction and recovery.” 

The ageless sapling

Nothing has changed in 2021. The constant gardener continues to see signs of a great harvest to come.

“It is these green shoots that we must continue to nurture as we steer the economy towards a full recovery and further growth,” he said on 18 February.

“As we undertake further structural reforms, this will entrench the green shoots we have begun to see in the economy,” he said on 28 February.

“As we forge ahead with our economic reconstruction and recovery, we must recognise and nurture green shoots such as this,” he said on 14 April.

And while the “green shoots” never seem to grow - the same cannot be said of the metaphor, which grows all the time.

Responding to the debate on the Presidency’s Budget Vote, on 3 June, Ramaphosa made no less than three references to his ever-decimated, always recovering garden:

“But what we can say, is that we are now seeing some of the green shoots of recovery… What we have to ensure now is that these green shoots lead to a sustained acceleration in growth… Like the green shoots of nature, these developments are a promise, a sign of hope. It is our responsibility – each and every one of us, in this House and across this country – to nurture these green shoots, to give them water and sunshine and nourishment.”

The salted earth

And so it goes. On and on. An endless metaphor of hope. Yet, four years of “green shoots” and the most recent national unemployment figures – so often the trigger for Ramaphosa to evoke the metaphor – set a new record, 43,2% on the expanded definition. The soil is salted, you see. Nothing is going to grow in it.

In the background, Eskom went to Stage 4 on Tuesday, the sign of a long and cold winter to come, even if it is Springtime in the Ramaphosa garden. . In Johannesburg, water is running dry. Local government continues to implode. The Zondo Commission, which seems to have devolved into a latter day truth and reconciliation commission, as opposed to the hard-edged prosecutorial weapon it was ostensibly conceived to be, continues to document in fine detail the depths of ANC depravity. The Ramaphosa administration’s contribution to this particular fight was to loot what small Covid-19 response funds there were.

But, salted or not, Ramaphosa’s real problem is that he seems to believe the fire is out. It’s not. The ANC is the fire. And you can’t “entrench” (?) “green shoots” in red hot embers. Not even the world’s greatest gardeners can do that.

Not that the metaphor was ever about the real world. If it was about the real world, you might ask, when exactly are these “green shoots” going to grow? No, as with most all of Ramaphosa’s language, this was about whisking long the unthinking on a fantastical romantic journey with him. It was about escaping the real world, not living in it. And it worked a treat.

You can be sure there is more to come. Quite how long Ramaphosa will be able to continue telling us about “green shoots” is anyone’s guess. It would be nice if we too could see Ramaphosa’s garden. But it’s not essential. We have him to describe it to us, and that’s what really matters.