He was outbid at the auction, but that didn’t matter for his detractors. They dubbed him the Buffalo, in a bid to create a byword in a pre-meme era for profligate behaviour, positioning him as a cadre who’d sold out to capital. By the time Bell Pottinger was unmasked, Ramaphosa had effectively been elected as the poster child of White Monopoly Capital.
It’s the measure of a person, when adversity can be turned into triumph. On Saturday, Ramaphosa looked at his predecessor as ANC president and said: “President Zuma, we are here in Buffalo City, near the Buffalo River, at the Buffalo Stadium and now you will be addressed by the Buffalo.”
It was only weeks before that he had won the elective battle at Nasrec; one of the closest in the ANC’s 106-year history, certainly one of the most bitter and divisive, redolent with dirty tricks and character assassination. His victory almost seemed empty for his top six officials appeared equally split between his ticket and the opposition slate run by his erstwhile rival Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The rest of the all-important 86-member national executive committee appeared equally matched.
On Saturday though, as the faithful gathered under a sweltering East London summer sun with hardly a breath of air in the packed stadium - or the two adjacent overflow venues - Ramaphosa started showing that the tide had turned, that he was in control.
There had been an ebb and flow of mini battles ever since Nasrec and especially last week in East London, starting with the special meeting of the NEC refusing to consider any motion to recall Zuma as president of the country and flowing through to Mandla Mandela’s refusal to allow Ramaphosa and his entourage to lay a wreath at the grave of the father of the modern ANC - and indeed democratic South Africa.
Everywhere else, Boksburg, Pietermaritzburg, KwaDukuza and Inanda had been fine, but suddenly Qunu was a no-go area; not just for the media, but for everyone. Instead the ANC appeared hastily to agree to reconvene on February 11, once the putative cultural arrangements have been made, to lay a wreath and then commemorate Madiba’s release from Victor Verster in 1991.
If it fazed Ramaphosa, there was no sight of it. It certainly made no impression whatsoever on Saturday when he appeared to redouble his efforts to refashion the ANC in the shape and focus it had enjoyed in its recent heyday under Mandela - starting with everything beginning and ending on time - a slight on Zuma sitting behind him on the podium.
Quoting Mandela’s much-loved dictum, punctuality equals respect, he said: “The NEC had its very first meeting this week which started on time. Nelson Mandela would have been very pleased; to start on time means we respect each other, we respect our movement. We want a new culture.”
The January 8 statement is the collective view of the 86-person NEC, which is read by the organisation’s president on the Saturday closest to that date. It’s a document that informs the State of the Nation Address which is traditionally a month away, when the president of the country - normally one and the same person - officially opens Parliament in Cape Town.
The statement sets the scene for the year ahead, identifying key strategies and concerns.
Running at just over 6000 words, it’s a speech that covers a lot of ground; from pressing national issues all the way through to the more arcane party policy issues. Ramaphosa didn’t keep to it in its entirety, which in no ways lessens the import of the issues covered in the written statement or negates them, but it does speak volumes about what his priorities as party president will be, especially when taken in conjunction with his extemporising on the speech, both in English and at least eight other official languages.
Thus, the four key areas: free tertiary education, radical economic transformation, land expropriation and state capture in its broadest sense were all dealt with and then built upon. There will be free tertiary education for the poor, but on a phased-in process “as we find the money as we accumulate the money”. Likewise, land expropriation without compensation, which will involve freeing up government land in urban areas in particular to assuage the deep hunger for property ownership, cannot involve any redistribution of agricultural land without proper consideration or any threat whatsoever to either the current size of the agricultural sector or the country’s food security.
Radical economic transformation, now known radical socio-economic transformation, will involve fixing the SOEs, ensuring that they drive the economy and not drain it. Eskom, Prasa and Transnet - all significantly fingered in state capture - were highlighted as “SOEs we must become proud of.”
Corruption and collusion, financial irregularities, or any other euphemism, as Ramaphosa put it, for corporate corruption, including cartels and unfair competition, would all be outlawed and the police and prosecutorial authorities strengthened to act without fear, favour or prejudice, “they should act to advance the interests of the country, not individuals”, he said.
It was crystal clear who and what he was referring to. There will be an immediate establishment of a commission of enquiry into state capture, with those responsible being investigated and prosecuted as a top priority.
The biggest show of his leadership though was the issue of unity, one which the NEC he said had heard from the people and been given a mandate by the elective conference at Nasrec.
This would not be a unity of papering over factions, but rather the unity of a revitalised movement in which these warring factions were subsumed and anyone caught acting in the spirit of disunity held to account, punished and, if necessary, expelled.
“If any leader does anything that divides them, we will bring them to Luthuli House to explain. We must rid the movement of gatekeeping and vote buying, as well as the undue interference in the process because it strips the membership of their rights, responsibilities and influence. We will build a membership that is transparent, efficient and credible.”
And in another side-swipe at Zuma: “We need cadres who seek no advantage for themselves or their families.”
Borrowing heavily from Mandela, Ramaphosa painted a picture of the rainbow nation once again, in which ANC branches would attract “most active, brightest, most upstanding and most committed members of our communities - young and old, women and men, black and white,” a far cry from the divisive wit-gevaar race card politicking that dominated much of last year’s discourse.
This year, he said, would be the year that the ANC would rebuild itself and turn around the economy, “our people are filled with hope. They are expectant. This is what we are going to do this year.”
The hope was palpable around the stadium, starting with the alliance partners who didn’t just bring fraternal greetings at the start of the proceedings, they effectively pledged a new oath of fealty to the ANC.
Zuma arrived during the middle of this, disrupting the proceedings while he and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta took their seats on the stage. He was boo-ed, loudly, for his pains - the first of several outbursts, being sparked every time his name was mentioned.
Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, long seen as one of his Zuma’s most fervent supporters, seemed to have been swept up in the Ramaphosa fervour: “Our hopes are high that you shall be able to deal with the challenges; unemployment at over 36%, more than half of all South Africans going to bed with just one meal a day.
“Cyril Ramaphosa, you said things will change, we believe you. If you deliver, we’ll give you the 66% (vote in the general elections) you need to change the laws you have to. We promise to deliver Nelson Mandela Bay for you by May 1. Whatever they [the opposition] have taken, we the people of South Africa will take back.”
But it was Blade Nzimande, secretary general of the South African Communist Party, who would set the tone for Ramaphosa’s speech just as he did four weeks ago at Nasrec - after being prevented from speaking until the voting had finished.
“Defend our national sovereignty, strengthen our SOEs so that they drive transformation, deal with unemployment and drive the economy.
“The ANC has to respect the country. Don’t take the people for granted.”
Ramaphosa has his work cut out for him.
* Ritchie is Independent Media’s regional editor for Gauteng