The election of Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency of the ANC remains the biggest story in the country as we head into the new year, as well it should be. Most of the country waits for Ramaphosa’s first move.
He has a clean slate on which to draft a better future for the country, but he has to start with courage and honesty – at the outset.
The silence and apparent inaction of the past couple of weeks since he was elected to lead the ANC can probably be attributed to the holidays.
We can be sure, nonetheless, that there have been any number of meetings.
Most of what has been discussed in these meetings will remain confidential.
There will, no doubt, be speculation and uncertainty about the future of the country.
This is never good for society or the market, those millions of transactions between people that make up the global whole.
All of this notwithstanding, like the mythical Indo-European figure, Janus, to whom January was sacred, at least according to some texts, Ramaphosa represents the transition from past to future.
The past has many ills, the future remains clean and innocent because nothing has happened, yet.
So, whatever he does next, between the time of writing this column, on New Year’s Eve, and January 13, when the ANC holds its 106th birthday celebrations, will give the clearest indication whether or not we have left behind the “low, dishonest decade” – the words W H Auden used to describe the years leading to World War 2.
In one respect, Ramaphosa represents more than a simple break with the decade behind us.
Should he become president of South Africa next year, he would mark somewhat of an historical break, in the sense that he would be the first publicly elected president after Nelson Mandela who did not receive political training in the former Soviet Union.
This is an important distinction, if only because under Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and more so under Zuma, the state became personalised, and therein lay one of the biggest problems of the democratic era.
So much so that it needs no explanation . . .
If the public service is framed by the National Development Plan (NDP), Ramaphosa can depersonalise the state, and make the public service more professional, more accountable and less loyal to the leaders of the ANC.
It is useful, then, to consider that Ramaphosa’s “political training” was in the mass democratic movement (MDM) that grew within South Africa in the 1980s. This is significant. It means that Ramaphosa has clearer senses of democracy, of political organisation and participation, and that he understands the horrors of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
The MDM that was born in the 1980s was an organic formation, and foregrounded inclusivity, non-racialism, non-sexism, tolerance, participation and consultation.
Many people, across a spectrum of society, expected these beliefs and values to shape the polity after 1994.
Very many of the MDM leaders became some of the most competent and respected people in the democratic era – not all, it should be said, were members of the ANC or went into government.
What is clear, nonetheless, is that these expectations were first lowered, then abandoned during the Zuma presidency.
Today he represents the cynosure of the low, dishonest decade.
On the plus side, all of this can be placed behind us if, in Ramaphosa’s first public statement as president of the country, which could be any time, he was bold and honest. He has nothing to lose. One outstanding example of this honesty and courage is the 1990 New Year’s message that Vaclav Havel delivered to the newly independent Czech Republic.
Never mind Havel’s personal or political legacy, his opening statement, as newly elected leader of the Czech Republic, was daring, brutally honest and eloquent.
“My fellow citizens. For 40 years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
“I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you. “Our country is not flourishing. “The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly.
“Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need.
“A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers.
“Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available.”
There are very few people in South Africa, and fewer still among the most influential people in the world, who believe that the country is on a steady course, and that society is marked by cohesion and trust.
Ramaphosa can spin our problems any way that he wishes.
It may be his prerogative, but it is our destiny.
It would be best if we entered the future with full knowledge and understanding of what it is that we have to address.