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A future SA under Cyril Ramaphosa

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NICOLA MILTZ

Ramaphosa is tasked with the unenviable job of cleaning up President Jacob Zuma’s mess and ushering in the most important years since the dawn of our democracy. 

His first tough battle was that of deposing Zuma, who, at the eleventh hour resigned as president, still insisting he had “done nothing wrong” – while South Africans waited with bated breath to hear the end of his disastrous reign.

Now that Zuma has resigned, Ramaphosa’s next challenge is to rebuild the country’s economy and create a brighter future for all South Africans.

Who is this man, hailed as the potential fourth president of a democratic South Africa and the 14th president of the ANC? What exactly does he bring to the party, after agonising in the wings of power waiting for Zuma to vacate the building. 

A consummate politician and businessman, Ramaphosa is arguably one of the few politicians with an intrinsic understanding of the local Jewish community’s deep connection to the State of Israel. He has shown himself to be open to engagement on the complex nature of the conflict in the Middle East and has openly called for dialogue on the issue.

His first port of call, however, is trying to save the country from collapse and stabilising the economy. This will take time and patience, evidently something he has a lot of. 

Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg in 1952 and grew up in Soweto. He was involved in student affairs and politics from his school days and later at university, where he studied law at the then University of the North (Turfloop), now Limpopo University.

Ramaphosa founded one of the most powerful trade unions in the country, the National Union of Mineworkers, and he is credited with playing a leading role as an ANC negotiator at the series of negotiations that took place in the early 1990s, known as Codesa. These talks paved the way to our democracy. 

Ramaphosa is also credited with leading the ANC team in drawing up the Constitution, hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. 

His election has been welcomed by the Jewish community based on the view that he understands the economy after many years of accumulating business knowledge and personal wealth. This view is shared by investors and ratings agencies.

It is no secret that Ramaphosa has built up close friendships within the Jewish community and has always been open to them. He has faced criticism over this and been accused by comrades in the ANC and by other politicians of being aligned with white monopoly capital. He clearly understands that the Jewish community “cares deeply” about the country.

In 2013, Ramaphosa was the guest speaker at an event organised by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein to discuss challenges facing the nation. 

Addressing a large crowd at Investec, he said of the Jewish community: “It is a community with strong roots in this country, and which has played a significant role in shaping its development. Members of the Jewish community are to be found, and have excelled, in almost every field of social, scientific and economic endeavour.

“Though small in numbers, the South African Jewish community is significant in its influence and capabilities, and in the contribution that it has made, and continues to make, to building this nation.”

He said there was much that South Africans could learn from the Jewish community. “For me, the most important of these can be found in its very understanding and representation of the notion of ‘community’,” he said.

Ramaphosa urged the community to “acknowledge that our individual interests are inextricably linked to the interests of the collective”.

“Unless we attend to the needs of all our people,” he added, “whatever material progress we may individually have made will be, at best, vulnerable, and at worst, fleeting.”

This week, the chief rabbi described his relationship with Ramaphosa as “warm and connected over many years”. They have interacted over many issues, going back even before he was appointed to his post of chief rabbi, when Ramaphosa presented him with a warm reference and letter of endorsement. Since then, says Goldstein, “we have stayed in contact up until recently, leading up to the elective conference in December last year.

“In general, his approach to conflict is sophisticated and broad. He has a deep understanding and is able to see all sides. He has a history of mediating conflict and with his own style and personality he is able to bring parties together,” he said.

Zev Krengel, the vice-president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, also maintained that Ramaphosa has always had a “good relationship” with the Jewish community. However, Krengel says it remains to be seen how he will tackle the Israeli embassy downgrade challenge, which will eventually make it on to his desk as things settle under his leadership. “It is a wait-and-see situation. We don’t know at this early stage how things will play out.”

At the chief rabbi’s event in 2013, mentioned above, Ramaphosa said that “there needs to be a dialogue” with regard to Israel, “because there are various perceptions, possibly on both sides”. 

“One message that the chief rabbi put forward, which I have also put forward, is that there needs to be an area where we find balance; where we look at the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine, and say we are in full support of peace efforts,” said Ramaphosa at the time. “A peace effort that will lead to a solution where both countries can live in peace. And that is something which we should support unreservedly.”

Ramaphosa went on to tell the audience that his government should “not sit on the sidewalks of the streets and say it’s their problem” when it came to the Middle East.

“We need to be engaged,” he said. “And where we think wrong policies are being pursued, we actually need to go and talk to the people and gain access and argue our point and find a consensus.

“We are consensus builders. And even on this issue, even as we are far away here in the south, we have got a community here that is so deeply connected with Israel. We also have a community in South Africa that is so deeply connected with Palestine.”

Addressing the Middle East conflict, he added: “I know that it’s an almost intractable problem. I have discussed it with the chief rabbi now and again. It is a difficult problem. But it needs cool heads on all sides.”  

Political analyst and businessman Howard Sackstein told the SA Jewish Report this week that Ramaphosa has always had a close relationship with many members of the Jewish community. Sackstein expressed the hope that greatest impact he will have “is in improving the value system of the country as a whole”.

”All of us want to live in a society free of crime, corruption and maladministration. We need to feed the poor and provide opportunities for all South Africans to allow them to flourish. If Ramaphosa can do this for all South Africans, our community will thrive in an environment where human life and dignity prevail and in a value system we can all ascribe to.”

 

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