It was just over an hour long, outlined eight tasks, and comprised more than 3829 words, but what did Cyril Ramaphosa’s January 8 statement to more than 40000 ANC supporters at a packed Mbombela Stadium in Mpumalanga contain?
In some ways, quite a lot – but in others, remarkably little.
What does the prospect of losing power mean for a political party and former liberation movement that feels it was born to rule “until Jesus comes back to Earth”?
That question has been haunting the ANC for almost six years, ever since Ramaphosa’s captaincy of the party and the government started to unravel with the deepening of factions and the failure to implement several of its conference resolutions – since 2017 – the period when a probably decisive proportion of voters began to conclude that they had had enough of the ANC government for now.
The speech was sickly, with signs of power draining away even though Ramaphosa boasted of the ANC’s successes over the past 30 years – including building RDP houses, electrifying homes, and supplying needy citizens with water – to sell the ruling party to voters.
The ghosts of the ANC’s implosion drifted around the Mbombela stadium all through the rally. Ramaphosa said the ANC is coming under attack from those forming alliances, such as the Moonshot Pact, and those creating ANC splinter parties. He said these anti-transformation groupings are joining with “snake” parties formed by former ANC members.
Another unintentionally revealing feature of the rally was the overwhelming proportion of speakers, including Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi and SACP general secretary Solly Mapaila, criticising the ANC’s national executive committee over what they say is a failure to take decisive action against certain municipalities not paying their workers, as well as against individuals “dividing” the party.
Anniversary celebration speeches traditionally signal assertiveness and demonstrate a commitment to collectively solve a nation’s pressing problems. In the ANC under Ramaphosa, they feel more like an exposed party still trapped by poor leadership.
They retreat into the elite’s comfort zones to hold on to their elderly core support, avoid an electoral rout and have something to build on afterwards when forced into coalition governments.
But it was telling that even Ramaphosa felt required to draw the contrast between today’s South Africa and the one under his early predecessors.
Even the fact that the election manifesto launch will happen in another province, in Moses Mabhida stadium in February, rather than in Mpumalanga, as part of the January 8 statement, which is the customary arrangement in an election year (as was the case in 2004, for example), felt like a demotion for the ANC.
The ANC remains contradictory: self-doubting but self-important, desperate for new ideas but nostalgic in its principles, probably on the way out but still wielding great power. This state is uncomfortable for the many glum and pensive faces of informal traders decking out tables with fruit and vegetables and an assortment of merchandise, hoping to catch the eye of passing party supporters headed for the stadium.
This negative labelling of splinter groups is stirring political waters.
This was a pre-election address that dressed up a cancellation of unfulfilled promises as a new start, another vote for the ANC as a bold choice, the opposition as a support for “snake” parties, and a hypothetical repackaging of socio-economic development and transformation targets as a revolution in good governance and accountability.
We often bill leaders’ speeches at anniversary celebrations as helping voters see the future and broaden their horizons. Ramaphosa’s address had a fair bit of this, not least dedicating the 112th anniversary of the ANC “to the defence and advancement of the gains of freedom and the intensification of the struggle for a better life for all” and declaring 2024 to be “the year of united action to defend our freedom and advance a better life for all”. Will voters see it differently? We will see.
Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist.