Decoding Cyril Ramaphosa's Speech: 'Take The Land, But...'

The new leader of the ANC had to twinkle along a pretty narrow tightrope in his maiden speech as party president.

21/12/2017 12:57 SAST | Updated 21/12/2017 12:57 SAST
Rogan Ward / Reuters
Newly elected president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa makes the closing address at the 54th national conference of South Africa's governing party in Johannesburg, South Africa. December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rogan Ward


Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa had to twinkle along a tightrope when he delivered his maiden address as ANC leader in the early hours of Thursday morning at the party's national conference in the Nasrec Exhibition Centre south of Johannesburg.

He had to appease all the many interests and constituencies in the party in order to establish his authority and credibility –– and he did this by delivering a balanced, nuanced and statesmanlike message.


Rogan Ward / Reuters
Newly elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) Cyril Ramaphosa makes the closing address at the 54th National Conference of the ruling ANC in Johannesburg, South Africa December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Ramaphosa was measured in tone, he connected with his audience, and he spoke off the cuff. There was no lofty oratory in the tradition of some of the great political speeches we have seen in this country, but it was a workmanlike and clear statement of intent from the president-in-waiting.

He acknowledged the new policies of the ANC –– albeit with serious caveats –– and spoke clearly of the need to eradicate corruption. But of all the recurring themes in the speech (there were roughly five main themes), unity was the biggest.


The new ANC president, hamstrung by the premier-league ball-and-chain that is David Mabuza (deputy president) and Ace Magsahule (secretary-general), seemingly suffered a number of painful body blows earlier in the day.

The Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (or #RET, or even #Zupta) faction of the party rammed through a policy proposal that the Constitution be amended to enable the expropriation of land without compensation, as well as the "nationalisation" of the South African Reserve Bank. Things weren't looking pretty.

Rampahosa had to tread carefully. He didn't win a U.S. presidential election –– in which the individual is able to implement his programme and policies from day one. He won a fraught party-political contest in which he was handed his leadership team by the party membership.

And he doesn't have an overwhelming mandate either –– securing only 52% of popular support in the party's electoral college, the smallest margin of victory in recent memory. It was therefore impossible to stick to his stated campaign tenets.


The decision to amend article 25 of the Constitution (the so-called property clause) is by far the most important policy decision taken at the conference. Ramaphosa's references to the decision got the loudest cheer of any during his speech, and as newly anointed leader he had to be seen to own it.

He used the word "care" three times when referring to the party's economic management, referred to the "management" of the economy twice and said the economy is "sophisticated and complex"

He made the announcement, acknowledging the "overwhelming, unanimous agreement" on the matter, and proceeded to root the decision in the historical injustice of the dispossession of black South Africans, signalling that he understands the broad frustration with poverty among many.

Speaking off the cuff, he said: "Many households will be able to testify: as soon as their land was taken away, poverty set in, because our forebears, before the land was taken away from them, led a fulfilled life from the land. They were able to feed their families. And when the removals and dispossession took place, poverty became a partner to the people of our country."


Rogan Ward / Reuters
Supporters celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa being elected President of the African National Congress (ANC) at the gates of the Nasrec Expo Centre, where the 54th National Conference of the ruling party takes place, in Johannesburg, South Africa December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

He explained the reasoning ,but added some serious caveats (also to cheers): such a constitutional amendment must not destabilise the agricultural sector, endanger food security or harm any other sector. Every reference to expropriation had those three riders attached.

Ramaphosa, who knew that international markets had reacted strongly to indications that he was going to win the leadership contest and that he had to allay the worst fears, then spoke about the ANC's record since 1994 in stewarding the economy.

He emphasised that the party will be responsible going forward. He used the word "care" three times when referring to the party's economic management, referred to the "management" of the economy twice, and said the economy is "sophisticated and complex".

Rampahosa, with President Jacob Zuma sitting in the front row of his audience, did not mention the words "state capture" once. He also never referred to the Guptas.

There was enough there to indicate that within the labyrinthine maze which is ANC ideology and policy, there is an awareness of the dangers of amending the country's supreme law to seize assets; land or otherwise.


"The ANC has always taken care to seek to manage the economy of our country in a way that will advance the interest of our people. There have been weaknesses from time to time, but in the main, since 1994, we have taken care to manage this very sophisticated and complex economy of South Africa with due care. Even with this decision, we will make sure, that as it is implemented, we will manage the process properly, with due care and with interests of our people as a whole."


AFP/Getty Images
African National Congress (ANC)'s Secretary General Ace Magashule delivers a speech during the closing ceremony of the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg on December 20, 2017, during the African National Congress (ANC) 54th National Conference. Cyril Ramaphosa's victory in the ANC leadership battle has sparked renewed hope among many in South Africa's Soweto township where he grew up -- and where frustration with the party has been mounting. / AFP PHOTO / GULSHAN KHAN (Photo credit should read GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Rampahosa, with President Jacob Zuma sitting in the front row of his audience, did not mention the words "state capture" once. He also never referred to the Guptas.

But his references to the scourge of corruption and how it has manifested in recent times was clear. After his introduction and the initial talk of unity, Rampahosa started to weave in his anti-corruption message, saying the ANC membership is clear about the need for public office to build a developmental state, not to serve vested interests.

His big play, however, came when he referred to the corruption at state-owned enterprises precipitated by "individuals" using their "influence" –– a clear shot across the bow of the shadow state and the state capturers.

He also did not spare Steinhoff, and gave a nod to those who feel that corruption in the private sector is treated more softly than corruption in the public sector. Corruption "must be acted upon, must come to a stop with immediate effect", Ramaphosa said.


Getty Images
SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA DECEMBER 20: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): President Jacob Zuma during the 1st speech of Cyril Ramaphosa as the president of the ANC at 54th African National Congress (ANC) national conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre on December 20, 2017 in Soweto, South Africa. The national executive committee (NEC), consisting of 80 members was announced after Ramaphosa's speech. They play a crucial role in the partys decision making processes. (Photo by Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

It was pretty clear that Ramaphosa tried to assert himself over Zuma, with pointed references to the need to cultivate "ethical leadership" and that the ANC must "fearlessly" act against corruption and "abuse of office" in its own ranks (there were two significant references to misdeed by ANC leaders "in office").

Ramaphosa's problem will be the two centres of power: he will be Zuma's subordinate at the Union Buildings, but at Luthuli House it is the other way around. He attempted to lay down the law by telling the conference that the ANC remains the "strategic centre of power" for "all its cadres", and that they must take direction from the party "in all their actions".