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20/12/2017 10:43 SAST | Updated 20/12/2017 12:08 SAST

Ramaphosa's Moment Is Now -- He Needs To Grab It

The newly elected ANC president's maiden address is a big moment. He needs to nail his colours firmly to the mast.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. He needs to set the tone for his term of office when he delivers his first speech as ANC president.
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Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. He needs to set the tone for his term of office when he delivers his first speech as ANC president.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, newly installed as the president of the ANC, faces his first big test today, when he delivers his maiden speech as the party's leader.

He will be speaking to a party riven by factionalism and hobbled by patronage. But he will also be speaking to a South African public looking to him for decisive leadership.

The elevation of Mabuza isn't ideal and the election of Magashule came out of left field. But Ramaphosa won the top job against the Zuma network's wishes. And that's telling.

The importance of Ramaphosa's election as ANC leader should not be underestimated. He is facing a significant political problem in his top six, with the election of two allegedly corrupt and pliable individuals in David Mabuza (deputy president) and Ace Magashule (secretary-general), and a potentially divided national executive committee (NEC). But he prevailed despite the mobilisation of the entire network established by President Jacob Zuma against his campaign.

The elevation of Mabuza isn't ideal, and the election of Magashule came out of left field. But Ramaphosa won the top job against the Zuma network's wishes. And that's telling.

Ramaphosa's speech on Wednesday is crucial. It will set the tone for his first term as leader and demonstrate what his priorities will be. His constituents on Wednesday are ANC members –– not only those attending a disjointed and fraught party conference, but the broader membership. The conference has illustrated quite clearly that the party is deeply divided, as the gulf between the Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma slates clearly illustrated. The two slates offered voting delegates a stark and clear choice between reform and retain. They chose a mix of the two.

This presents Ramaphosa with a poser. His maiden speech as party president needs to emphasise party unity and reconciliation. People are bruised, some are angry, and many are distrustful. He will need the party to remain intact if he wishes to enact the type of deep reforms that he wants to. And he will need to enlist the help and support of former enemies if he is going to succeed. He will, therefore, have to reach out, by name and rank, to individuals who opposed him, and attempt to win their trust.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (right) won the ANC's leadership contest despite President Jacob Zuma mobilising his whole network against his subordinate.

Ramaphosa made the battle against graft and state capture the centrepiece of his campaign. His victory -- securing 52% of the electoral college vote -- suggests that he has substantial support to carry out his mandate. Not overwhelming, but not insignificant either.

His speech needs to reflect that. He should diagnose the problem with state capture and carefully articulate his strategy to address it. There cannot be any ambiguity, even though it will be interpreted as a political attack on the head of state and his fellow travellers.

The challenge will be to balance unity and reconciliation, prerequisites for a stable and functioning party, with a clear determination to combat the scourge of corruption, a prerequisite for credibility and trust. Ramaphosa knows he won't win all the political battles all of the time, and that there will be losses and setbacks on the way.

A deference to the Constitution, Freedom Charter and National Development Plan will insulate himself against the inevitable political attacks from within.

But he needs to set the tone by identifying a set of guiding principles and initiatives against which he can be measured. And it needs to show intent.

However, Rampahosa won't be able to do that by merely launching a broadside against the Zumaïtes. He needs to build a consensus that will enable him to ruthlessly cull the corrupt and contaminated. It will take time and require strategic planning and execution.

This he can do by rooting himself among the membership and branches as the vehicle of their expectations. And a deference to the Constitution, Freedom Charter and National Development Plan will insulate himself against the inevitable political attacks from within.

AOL
Cyril Ramaphosa, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma at the Codesa negotiations in August 1991. Thabo Mbeki sits in the second row.

A Ramaphosa adviser on the sidelines of the conference said this week that Ramaphosa understands the limits of power, he knows how to use power and how to utilise it in an environment not of his making.

Roelf Meyer, on the other side of the political divide during the negotiation period that ended apartheid, says Rampahosa is the ultimate dealmaker and consensus-seeker, having kept a disparate ANC negotiation team together in the early 1990s.

Efforts to unite the ANC while purging it, and eventually government, of corruption start today. But in today's maiden address, he will have to nail his colours firmly to the mast -- without splitting it.