What to make of Ramaphosa's SONA?

Mike Berger says the music was good, but there were some jarring notes

The next few years will tell us whether the last night's SONA delivered by President Cyril Ramaphosa to a hungry and angry nation was a major transition point in our history or a damp squib. Whether we're witnessing the blast-off of the South African miracle or, as Jakkie Cilliers put it, 'Bafana-Bafana' or 'A Nation Divided' - or maybe worse. Whether Cyril will take his place amongst the great leaders of South Africa or will it turn into a dream indefinitely deferred.

But this is South Africa's chance at true greatness. Zuma and cronies would have destroyed a lesser country but we fought back. We did not fall into the traps of tribal violence or revolutionary fantasies. Our institutions and nerve held - just. It was coming down to the wire.

As I have said previously, Zuma was a throw-back to the era of Big Men, unaccountable, infinitely greedy, arbitrary, erratic and ruthless Big Men, the bane of Africa. He's gone with the refrains of his final bitter, self-pitying speech lingering like an unpleasant odour. History will hopefully be kinder, remembering his lowly origins, lack of formal education, service to the liberation movement and considerable personal qualities. But his greed, narcissism and lack of vision sank him and nearly sank us as well. That he did not fall to the level of Mugabe we can be thankful for.

President Ramaphosa started somewhat nervously, as he should have. It was a momentous occasion and heavy expectations had been placed on his shoulders. The last months, weeks and days have been nail-biting, from Ramaphosa's 'skin of his teeth election' as ANC president to the 'resistance' and Zuma's tentacles tenaciously clinging to power. Few of us dared hope for this outcome. It was not foreordained and I look forward to the authoritative accounts detailing the story of these potentially pivotal events when they appear.

In essence the speech was a clarion call to free enterprise to drive transformation and social upliftment in collaboration with a supportive state. Ramaphosa ticked an extraordinary number of boxes: corruption, crime, health, re-industrialisation and manufacturing, science and innovation, workplace skills, basic education and early childhood, higher education, tourism and agriculture.

These commitments went beyond simple gestures to include specifics and dates: Free Economic Zones, a Job Creation Summit, an Investment Conference, a permanent Presidential Economic Advisory Council, improved intra-continental trade with benefits for South Africa's trading partners and a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission.

The speech emphasised the small business sector and Ramaphosa undertook to reduce regulatory barriers and provide funding. Together with internships and a Youth Employment Service Initiative he committed himself to the urgent necessity of providing jobs and introducing a universal minimum wage at the same time.

Neither was the public service neglected. A professional and non-partisan civil service is the skeleton and sinews of a modern state and Ramaphosa spelt this out unambiguously.

"We are determined that everyone in public service should undertake their responsibilities with efficiency, diligence and integrity. We want to instil a new discipline, to do things correctly, to do them completely and to do them timeously. We call on all public servants to become agents for change. During the course of the next few months, I will visit every national department to engage with the senior leadership to ensure that the work of government is effectively aligned". Wow.

At numerous points in his speech, the President emphasised unity, a South Africa for all its citizens and state-corporate collaboration. Together with his get-tough approach to the issues of corruption, and delivery failure and his promise of predictability these themes were music to the ears of South Africans and, doubtless, overseas investors alike. Especially after the chaos and hopelessness created by the last three SONAs

We should not underestimate the immediate impact of this speech and the sanity and hope it has brought back into public life. At one step, the possibility of a South African renaissance seems within the bounds of reality. If we as a nation and Ramaphosa as a leader are able to make good on 75% of the promises and undertakings we will have set the stage for another South African miracle equivalent to the transition to democracy for all. I do not think those who were present at or listened to the speech could have missed the change in music.

But South Africans have become accustomed to seeing their hopes dashed and struggles come to naught. We are no longer easily seduced by sweet words. Hopefully we have come to realise that while a truly awful leader can harm a country or even destroy it, it's the people who make a country great. Dreams have to be converted into reality by hard work, relentless persistence and intelligent adaptability. There are limits to our current reserves of skills, talent and funds for the immense job of renewal that Cyril has committed himself and us to. But a start needs to be made and sustained through the inevitable setbacks, missteps and chance catastrophes which accompany great projects.

With the people I also include those in positions of influence through wealth, prestige or formal power as politicians, judges and leaders of important public institutions. I include the narratives which shape their actions, and the commonsense (or, if you like, intuitive wisdom) which leads them to choose constructive narratives and values over self-defeating memes. These words are a prelude to a consideration of the symbolism or background music to Ramaphosa's speech.

As pointed out above the music was good but there were jarring notes which most commentators have chosen to overlook. I don't think we should. Let me explain.

Early in his address CR used the words 'our people' and I wondered exactly who he meant by that? Yes he talked a lot about unity and partnerships but all his examples of leaders were drawn solely from his co-ethnic group, Black African: Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Pixley ka Seme, Charlotte Maxeke and Chief Albert Luthuli. No Alan Paton, no Adam Small, no Nadine Gordimer, no Suzman, no Gandhi, no Smuts or Albie Sachs, or Joe Slovo.

Of course, there were references to the minority oppressors but no mention of the Black Sash ladies or thousands of young South Africans, including whites, coloured and Indian who joined hands with their black comrades. Or the many others who, in less political ways, worked and continue to work for black liberation and equality. In the speech President Ramaphosa said

"We are building a country where a person’s prospects are determined by their own initiative and hard work, and not by the colour of their skin, place of birth, gender, language or income of their parents".

I endorse that counsel of perfection, achieved in full by few societies indeed and certainly not part of the legacy of the ANC over the past 20 years. But it is a goal worthy of our commitment. It was also essentially the only part of his speech which Ramaphosa translated into Afrikaans in a tone which hovered ambiguously between threat and invitation.

He also talked of radical economic transformation, land expropriation without compensation, the advancement of Black professionals and entrepreneurs and Black women. Yes these remarks were accompanied by appeals to unity and equality (and who could deny or justify the vast inequalities in our country) but the music jarred. President Ramaphosa can't have his cake and eat it - nobody can.

These are not quibbles. The rot in the ANC did not start with Zuma. It starts with narratives which are repeated and passed on unchallenged, the reductionist histories, the stereotyping and delegitimisation. It mirrors the tribalised ideological warfare of the current era. It is fodder for division, for discrimination and for scoundrels. It's a recipe for failure in the long term.

Walt Whitman the great American poet wrote "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" The question that South Africans will be asking Mr President is this. Are you large enough to contain all of South Africa and will the ANC allow you to do that?

In ending you quoted the words of the late great Hugh Masekela in his song, Thuma Mina. They were wonderful words and absolutely appropriate for the new South Africa you envisage. But many South Africans, while giving you all the benefit of the doubt, will at the same time be following these words adapted from 'Every Breath You Take' by the rock band, The Police:

"Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
We'll be watching you..."

One final thought for your consideration. At your next SONA which I'm looking forward to with great anticipation when you start with your salutations to the dignitaries present, please put 'my fellow South Africans' at the head of your list, not last.

Mike Berger