As I prepare to attend President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in parliament, I ponder over whether his message will mend fences and make good neighbours by rallying the nation around what matters most: eliminating poverty and unemployment. I am also reminded of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall,” in which the narrator describes an encounter with his neighbour at the stone wall that divides their land. They are there to repair the damage inflicted by winter. Reflecting on nature’s apparent dislike of all artificial barriers, the narrator questions the benefits of the task, and gets this answer: “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Do they in this Ramaphoria era?
Curiously, Frost’s narrator views this bit of folk wisdom with scepticism, but by refraining from providing a firm answer to our question, the poem manages to increase our curiosity: Besides the most obvious, delineating private property, what do “fences” truly represent? From what history teaches us, the answer seems obvious: What fences have very often indicated is not simply what is mine and what is yours, but, more subtly, who I am versus who you are. This tendency is based on the human inclination to define our identity in contrast to someone cast as a different, an untrustworthy Other best kept at a distance.
The same can be said about the record number of 48 political parties that contested the last elections as well as the increasing number of voters who see the ANC as untrustworthy to be entrusted with their votes and just governing with the only last chance. Moreover, South Africans have come to realise that while political parties are a vital political asset to a vibrant and thriving democracy, they also have great potential to become a political liability to democracy. The last election results confirmed a pattern that existed since 1994 that South Africans need no more that 14 political parties in parliament.
This liability problem is compounded when the current president is constantly faced with contradicting messages from within his party on key policy matters to address the pressing socio-economic challenges facing our nation, as will be the case Ramophosa ascends the podium.
Given the centrality of political parties in our democracy, I am also curious to hear the amount of emphasis he will put on mending fences between the recalcitrant ANC factions, the ANC-led government paralysed by corruption, and the racially polarised nation. Peacocking around international summits over the last fourteen months, he assured business leaders that the implementation of key investor-friendly policies will continue during his term as president. He has been praised half-heartedly in the media for wooing investors to South Africa, and for starting the clock running with neither a government-agreed game plan nor sufficient allies in the ANC to back up his efforts to bring political and economic stability in the country. To placate pressure groups advocating for clean government, he called for restraint to allow due processes to take full course, as commissions of inquiry and court processes are still underway.
I am concerned that Ramaphosa’s overreliance on the full backing of the ANC top leadership in Luthuli House will be dead and if he tries to resuscitate it at all costs, he will get short shrift. The noise around resignations from parliament by some former ministers and an investigation on Ace Magashule’s involvement in the formation of a rival political party bear another testimony to this.
Also, the recent party’s lekgotla statement on the Reserve Bank could just be one of many contradictions to come. Come to think of it, I am still gasping with astonishment at the scale of ANC contradictions which are akin to watching a traditional Zulu leather skirt made of cowhide (isidwaba), intended to dress up attractively Ramaphosa’s speech, sinking in a barrel of traditional beer and contaminating the brew. Throughout his presidential term, Parliament and the Union Buildings are most likely to closely resemble a swamp of crocodiles.
Undoubtedly, South Africa is in a mess that Ramaphosa’s speech will first have to stew in and then clean up. He must explain frankly how long it is going to take to clean up this mess and assure us that it is unlikely to persist or succeed. Those fuelling it again and again must soon realise to continue doing so will be a game with diminishing returns, as ordinary citizens grow increasingly restive. Against that backdrop, he must pay attention to some opposition parties that are likely to flare up racial tensions; others within the ANC that are likely to push for two centres of power in the run up to the party’s National General Council, which is rumoured to be likely to take place sooner than originally scheduled. Events moving at this speed will not allow for inertia.
We all know that the country could soon enter a lake of a full-blown economic recession from which we can take many years to find a way out. To avoid that, Ramaphosa must demonstrate bold leadership that can bring a discernible mandate and plans for all spheres of government and all stakeholders to implement collaboratively. He must also demonstrate striding towards a job-creation plan that also involves role-players in the informal economy by announcing long-term government-led spending in strategic sectors of the economy. If this speech is going to be worth anything, it must be practical in its approach to challenges facing our nation and assuring in its plans to break the stalemate in the economy and the ANC. There is no shortage of partners in business and civil society for government to join hands with.
What most expectations seem to prove is that, just as Frost’s narrator suggests when he recalls how the winter sabotages walls, the regeneration that our democracy always needs and expects when the president speaks to the nation can occur only when the fences of narrow party political interests are breached to allow encounters between different people, traditions and ideas working together to build a better future for all.
Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a Policy Analyst and Chairperson of the Election Monitoring Network.