A week in politics is more than a long time, sometimes: it can mark the beginning or the end of an era.
It is hard to believe that it was just this time last week that the man who sold his country, former president Jacob Zuma, was flatly refusing to step down from office. By Friday, in the State of the Nation address, a new man, President Cyril Ramaphosa, was resetting the tone for the nation, and Zuma was toast. Those who had depended on Zuma’s favours, who had enabled his vices, who had grown fat and arrogant along with him, those whose dumb stupidity was enough to entitle them to high office, have looks on their faces these days of utter bewilderment as South Africans, with justifiable schadenfreude, await their fall from office and the day of reckoning.
Ramaphosa’s speech on Friday rose to the moment: he spoke of renewal, of hope, of the civic virtues; he put bad guys on notice and asked the good guys – men and women – to lend a hand, with an emotive and effective reference to Bra Hugh Masekela, the great jazz hero who has just passed on to the big blue jazz club in the sky. And if some of Ramaphosa’s speech was mere ANC pablum – the self-deluding soviet-style recital of targets supposedly achieved and miracles of revolutionary accomplishment – that can be forgiven, at least for now, as the nation feels the weight of nearly ten lost years lifted, if only a little, from its tired and disillusioned shoulders.
Perhaps the boiler-plate vacuity was necessary – a consequence of the shortness of time, the speed of events, the need to reassure the faithful and placate enemies. But sooner or later – preferably sooner – the new President is going to have to show what he is made of. As the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro famously wrote, in a paraphrase of Palmerston – ‘power reveals.’
His ascent to power will show us all, over this year and the next, who Cyril Ramaphosa is, and whether his presidency is simply an event, in the long chain of events, or the beginning of an era. But let’s be honest: as far as new beginnings go, SONA on Friday was about as good as it gets.