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Did you notice Ramaphosa blackmailed you on Thursday?

Ideas

Did you notice Ramaphosa blackmailed you on Thursday?

The president wants you to survive on a diet of hope and resilience, which is brutal and wrong

Contributor and analyst
President Cyril Ramphosa during his state of the nation address on Thursday.
WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING? President Cyril Ramphosa during his state of the nation address on Thursday.
Image: GCIS

Did you notice President Cyril Ramaphosa blackmailed you on Thursday when he delivered the state of the nation address (Sona)?

Assuming you listened to the entire speech — you are justified if you stopped after an hour, if not earlier — you were emotionally blackmailed in the last five minutes. But he did it so eloquently that you might have missed the political toxicity thereof. 

Let’s take a serious and close look at it because a charge of blackmail against a president is not minor.

This is what he said: “Our country has suffered several damaging blows in recent times. A confluence of forces, many of them outside our control, has brought us to where we are now. We face steep and daunting challenges. Indeed, we are engaged in a battle for the soul of this country. But there can be no doubt that we will win. I ask every South African to rally together in our fight against corruption, in our fight to create jobs, in our fight to achieve a more just and equal society. We have faced many crises in our past, and we have overcome them. We have been confronted with difficult choices and we have made them. In trying times we have shown courage and resilience. Time and time again we have pulled ourselves back from the brink of despair and inspired hope, renewal and progress. Now, we must do so again. Let us forge a new consensus to confront a new reality, a consensus that unites us behind our shared determination to reform our economy and rebuild our institutions. Let us get to work. Let us rebuild our country. And let us leave no one behind. I thank you.”

This entire stretch of the speech is necessary to quote and I want to deconstruct all of it, but let’s first focus on two sentences that are at the heart of my gripe: “In trying times we have shown courage and resilience. Time and time again we have pulled ourselves back from the brink of despair and inspired hope, renewal and progress. Now, we must do so again.”

The president is demanding you be resilient in the face of an economy that is not growing beyond 2%, unemployment that is at 47% and equally dire statistical truths about the various dimensions of poverty and inequality. Life in SA for the majority of us is shit. Literally. If our children are not drowning in it, we experience it in the experiential misery that economic data obscure. Only those who can afford ice cream or tailored suits or genuine leather shoes have enough spare cash to buy into resilience and hope. Poor people cannot afford resilience and hope. Motivational quotes do not fill your stomach.

Only those who can afford ice cream or tailored suits or genuine leather shoes have enough spare cash to buy into resilience and hope. Poor people cannot afford resilience and hope. Motivational quotes do not fill your stomach.

When you focus doggedly on the objective state of the nation you have to recognise that Ramaphosa’s appeal for “resilience” is pure blackmail. He wants you to feel bad for not being resilient. He wants you to take on the burden of the state by shifting his government’s duty to ensure the state is resilient, instead demanding bruised and battered citizens be “resilient” while hungry, living in fear of kidnappings, hijackings, rape, murder, unemployment and underemployment.

The president is not so much inspiring you to dig deep as he is demanding you not be angry at him and the ANC-led government, by lulling you into a false sense of resilience security. That is callous. You deserve security, not sloganeering aimed at calming you down in the face of legitimate anger and expectations that your government should do better. 

When the president sweetly says that “time and time again we have pulled ourselves back from the brink of despair” he possibly means well. But meaning well is not good enough in the context of just how poorly governed SA is. This too is a combination of emotional blackmail and appeal to nostalgia. It is dangerous. We cannot keep relying on memories of the 1990s as a substitute for building institutions that are resilient and which enable each one of us to flourish and realise our potential.

Sure, we lived through horrific violence leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994 and that, in turn, at a psycho-political level, led to the exceptionalism narrative that is as South African as chisa nyamas and Mrs Ball’s chutney (the original flavour, not the weird subsequent experiments). Ramaphosa is telling you to be miraculous into perpetuity. That is unfair. That you “pulled yourself from the brink” last century does not mean you have endless reserves to do so every single time you are provoked, attacked or treated poorly. Appealing to proud historic moments of collectively resisting self-implosion by turning on each other is another subtle way of burdening you with the sins of the ANC-run state. 

How can you calmly look into the camera and tell millions of people living in poverty and hopelessness that they should “again” do what they did before and “pull [themselves] from the brink”? Those of us who are middle class, even working class, but not destitute (yet), should be careful of lowering the bar for Ramaphosa and not thinking critically when he calms us down with these motifs of resilience and hope.

The president did well on Thursday to speak with authority and calm, and the effect of these aesthetics is that he received exaggerated praise from people who do not separate aesthetics from cold analysis of the objective record.

It is brutal and wrong to tell people who suffer that they must survive on a diet of hope and resilience. Ramaphosa, as a super-wealthy South African, probably genuinely believes what he said. I do not think he took himself to be engaging in propaganda. But that does not change the reality of political blackmail embedded within the coda of his speech. The president should listen to the stories of those who are left behind rather than punting the lie that his government will make sure no one is left behind in future, as if past performance should not affect our judgment of ANC capability. Poor people are poor. They are not stupid and they do not have amnesia.

Ramaphosa is right that no one should be left behind. The only way that can be achieved is for the country to leave the ANC behind as we forge a new, post-ANC consensus.

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