Cyril Ramaphosa's near state of grace

After the opening of parliament grew increasingly grim during the Zuma years, our new president has made it worth celebrating it again

17 February 2019 - 00:00 By RANJENI MUNUSAMY

Replying to the debate on the state of the nation address on Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was heartened that MPs had offered him advice about who should and should not be appointed to the cabinet after the elections. He joked that this was an acknowledgement that the ANC would return to power - and that he would remain president.
His state of the nation speech was the last of the fifth administration. In three months, many new faces will occupy the 400 benches in the National Assembly and the first order of business will be to elect the president. It is a big deal being president of the Republic of SA and the opening of parliament is designed to showcase this.
SA's five post-democracy presidents are quite different in character, background and leadership style, as well as in the ways they came to power. Apart from all of them having been shaped by the ANC, there is not much that Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Ramaphosa have in common.
So it is an interesting experiment to overlay pictures of all five taking the national salute on the front dais of parliament. It is not just the hand-on-heart pose that is identical. They all have the same intense stare at an invisible spot in the middle distance, above the heads of the presidential guard.
They all appear to feel the weight of the moment.
They stand at attention for one minute and 40 seconds, the time the military ensemble takes to play the national anthem and for the cannons to fire 21 times. As the anthem reaches the bridge, the ground vibrates as Gripen fighter jets thunder past.
It is a rare moment of precision in an otherwise topsy-turvy country. Pulling this off takes some work.
Three fighter jets are flown from Air Force Base Makhado and stationed at Air Force Base Overberg. The South African Air Force does two practice rounds the day before the state of the nation address.
To make sure that the fly-past occurs at the crescendo of the anthem, the departure of the president's cavalcade from Genadendal, the presidential residence, is timed to the second. While the cavalcade travels through Cape Town's deserted streets, the jets take off and are kept in a holding pattern for 10 minutes. The pilots get a minute-by-minute countdown as the president arrives at the gates of parliament and walks up the red carpet.
At 6.55pm, the armed forces on the ground and the fighter jets in the sky salute their commander-in-chief.
Two years ago, this moment of national pride was marred by the deployment of the South African National Defence Force to maintain "law and order". The then president Zuma's announcement of the military deployment for a ceremonial event was met with shock, and even the presiding officers of parliament were caught off guard.
Over the past few years, the ring of steel around parliament has become a defining feature of what is meant to be a celebration of the republic.
The pageantry - from the red-carpet fashion to the military parades through the streets - dates to the apartheid era. The drive through town by the presidential cavalcade was a rare opportunity for the hoi polloi to catch a glimpse of apartheid's enforcers.
The tradition remained during the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies. When Zuma became president, the event was moved from Friday mornings to Thursday evenings to allow more people to watch the address on TV, but this meant there were no people on the streets.
As years went by and public hostility towards Zuma grew, security measures became more stringent. In 2015, the president's speech was delayed when a signal jammer was discovered in the media bay.
The event was also marred several times by the violent eviction of the EFF from the house.
By 2017, Zuma's last state of the nation address, the Cape Town city centre looked like it was under military siege. Last year, the address was postponed when it became clear that Zuma's days were numbered. It was hastily arranged a week later after Zuma resigned.
Though the pageantry was scaled down, parliament was in thrall of its new president. A squirrel scampering around the red carpet was named "Squirrel Ramaphosa", and talk in the precinct was that it was sent by the new president's ancestors to bless the event.
According to parliament's spokesperson Moloto Mothapo, preparations for the address begin in the middle of the preceding year.
Among the tasks is to find a different praise-singer every year to give exposure to all national languages. Presiding officers of the provincial legislatures are asked to recommend names of worthy candidates. Though they do not hold auditions, Mothapo says they have to recruit experienced imbongi who are able to belt out the president's heritage and praises, and won't not get cold feet when the big moment arrives.
Because there will be another opening of parliament after the May elections, parliament cut back the frills last week. Even the distance Ramaphosa walked on the red carpet was shortened.
He wanted focus on the speech, not the spectacle. First lady Tshepo Motsepe reinforced the point in her demure black and cream gown.
According to presidency insiders, there were seven versions of the speech, with Ramaphosa signing off the final version at midday on Thursday. It was uploaded to his iPad and checked several times to make sure he read the right version.
Unlike previous years when government departments submitted their plans and highlights to the presidency, Ramaphosa directed the inputs himself. His political adviser Steyn Speed was the main drafter but Ramaphosa apparently decided on the content and made substantial editing changes.
"He owns every sentence . He never reads anything he has not edited. Never," said a senior presidency official.
"So when the speech is flat, he owns it; when it is a high note, he owns it. CR is very tough when it comes to what he says . He openly wants to own every word. He reads too much so he can embarrass you because he is always ahead."
Predictably, the speech focused on his investment and the anti-corruption drives, the cornerstones of his first stint as president.
When Ramaphosa replied to the state of the nation debate this week, he had two hot potatoes in his lap. The crisis at Eskom caused rolling nationwide blackouts, and COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota claimed that during apartheid the president had sold out to the National Party government. EFF leader Julius Malema said there should be a commission of inquiry to investigate the latter.
First, Ramaphosa wished everyone Happy Valentine's Day and announced he had brought roses for all the women, including his wife. And he disarmed the opposition by talking directly to the leaders.
On the power crisis, Ramaphosa said there was no silver bullet, warning of difficult times ahead. He could not tell the nation what it wanted to know: how to stop the power cuts.
Against the advice of his team, Ramaphosa said he would respond to Lekota's accusation. It was a departure from Zuma's approach of mocking and swatting away allegations. "I can testify. I've never been a spy, I have never worked with the enemy," he said.
He ended a tough week at the office by quoting from Ben Okri's poem A New Dream of Politics: There's always a new way/ A better way that's not been tried before.
Each president has reflected the political moment in history - complex, flawed, powerful, inimitable, they personify the republic.
The job is the ultimate honour and a terrible curse.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.