Why Ramaphosa's SONA was a great speech

Rob Turrell explains the craft behind the President's address

Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA: how ‘thuma mina’ changed South Africa

Look SONA 2018 was the occasion for a great speech. And Ramaphosa gave a good speech that more than met expectations. It will inevitably be compared to Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech. Favourably. A better comparison, though, is FD Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential inauguration speech, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, in which he outlined a welfare programme to a country hammered by the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Similarly Ramaphosa offered ‘a new dawn’ to a South Africa hammered by the political crisis of a decade of Zuma misrule.

Every great speech has a theme and takes the listener on a journey.

Ramaphosa’s theme is ‘ethical leadership’ and he takes us on a journey from despair to hope.

Important ANC speeches begin by venerating ancestors but the centenary of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu’s births provided Ramaphosa with a better opportunity than ever to align himself with the best in ANC leadership. He does this emphatically by linking his theme to Mandela - “we will use this year to reinforce our commitment to ethical behaviour and ethical leadership” - but he is also able to commit to gender equality through remembering Albertina Sisulu - “she embodied the fundamental link between national liberation and gender emancipation.” Taken together Ramaphosa seeks to build on the best traditions in the ANC. “We honour this son and this daughter of the African soil in a year of change, in a year of renewal, in a year of hope.”

Ramaphosa nails his colours to Mandela’s legacy by reaffirming “our belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.’ This is clearly a time for one-nation ideology: ‘We are a nation at one’. And then the sentence that sticks a knife into Zuma’s legacy: “We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity, that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people.” He invites us ‘to put behind us’ all the negativity and diminishing public trust of the Zuma era. And we’re going to do that, he says, by returning to the Mandela legacy and building on his ethical leadership to create hope for the future.

Ramaphosa has a straight-forward style that inspires confidence because of its clarity and precision. He uses the major rhetorical techniques that most speeches contain: repetition, contrast, lists of three, pairs, metaphor, and hyperbole. But he has no tics that mark the style of other leaders. Obama was addicted to pairs (‘a son and husband, a father and a friend’); Blair made lists of three (education, education, education’) famous, Cameron was predictable in following repetitions with contrasts and using short sentences without verbs (‘Fried eggs. Crispy bacon. Sizzling sausages.’)

Let’s take a closer look at Ramaphosa’s style in the opening section.

Ramaphosa has no particular pattern in the way he mixes repetition and contrast. There are certainly many pleasing lists of three: “in a year of change, in a year of renewal, in a year of hope”. But he is weak on the repetition that is the bread and butter of political speeches; it’s the technique that provides emphasis and appeals to our emotions. He has the opportunity to repeat “put behind us” as a list of three at the beginning of three consecutive sentences, but he misses the rhetorical trick and rolls it over into repeating ‘new dawn’ twice. He pulls his punch. He is not as persuasive as he could have been.

He is free and easy with lists of three, mainly at the end of sentences. They give his speech rhythm. They give it emphasis. They give it credibility. “We should honour Madiba by putting behind us the era of discord, disunity and disillusionment.” That’s a list of three: ‘discord, disunity and disillusionment’. It’s also an alliterative list of three, more powerful and pleasing and compelling than a simple three-part list (tricolon).

The middle of the speech is constructed out of departmental contributions. Each department sends in a paragraph about what their priorities are for 2018. It’s not as if the DG thinks about it; just routine day work for an intern in the communication department. But it’s mostly written and not spoken text. And it shows. The speech here is totally without rhetorical techniques.

Yet it is well arranged and tackles clearly and concisely eight wicked issues that need urgent resolution for future growth: the economy, youth unemployment, mining charter, land restitution, free higher education, public-service salary bill, SOEs and SARS. It does this without setting implausible targets. Instead it sets achievable ‘next steps’: investment conferences, jobs and investment summits. There is no mention of a nuclear build.

“We have to build further on the collaboration with business and labour to restore confidence and prevent an investment downgrade.”

“We are going to embark on a number of measures to address the unemployment challenge.”

“We need to see mining as a sunrise industry.”

“We are determined that expropriation without compensation should be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensure that the land is returned to those from whom it was taken under colonialism and apartheid.”

“Starting this year, free higher education and training will be available to first year students from households with a gross combined annual income of up to R350,000.”

“We will therefore initiate a process to review the configuration, number and size of national government departments.”

“We will intervene decisively to stabilise and revitalise state owned enterprises.”

“I will shortly appoint a Commission of Inquiry into Tax Administration and Governance of SARS, to ensure that we restore the credibility of the Service and strengthen its capacity to meet its revenue targets.”

All of this laid out in prosaic statements. All doable. All achievable. No empty promises, no Marshall Plan, no New Deal.

Then at the end of the speech the rhetorical flourishes return. This is where he reaches for hyperbole, where he praises us for our patriotism and where he encourages us to ‘make history’. The lists of three roll out of long sentences: “bonded by our common love for our country, resolute in our determination to overcome the challenges that lie ahead and convinced that by working together …”.

Then a stroke of genius. He quotes from ‘Thuma Mina’, a famous song of the recently deceased Hugh Masekela, international jazz superstar and outspoken Zuma critic. The song is based on the words of the prophet Isaiah who volunteers to help (send me) the people of Israel. The refrain ‘send me’ (thuma mina) is immensely popular in African independent churches, and tapping into a reservoir of enthusiasm for personal change, Ramaphosa asks us all to ‘lend a hand’ and to say ‘send me’. It’s the only list-of-three repetition in the speech and the more powerful because it is the only one.

“Now is the time to lend a hand.
Now is the time for each of us to say ‘send me’.
Now is the time for all of us to work together, in honour of Nelson Mandela, to build a new, better South Africa for all.”

It’s a similar appeal to selflessness that JF Kennedy made in his 1961 inaugural speech, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’. A chiasmus. A phrase reversal. A contrast.

Rob Turrell writes speeches in government. See his analysis of Barack Obama’s Mandela speech in 2013 here