Are those who want to deny Ramaphosa a right to speak on Biko correct?

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September 12, since 1977, the dreadful day Bantu Stephen Biko brutally was murdered by an apartheid system will always be an emotional and painful moment for the victims of apartheid crime. The Apartheid regime so hated this 30-year-old activist philosopher of a reimagined psychology of blackness, for defying their definition of a black identity that they dehumanised him in stripping him naked and made him stand for hours, after which they drove him for over hours still naked to Pretoria where he later died.,

Naturally, the man from Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape who became the father of Black Consciousness is celebrated every year with a set of events but anchored with an annual Biko Lecture. This Year President Ramaphosa delivered the lecture. When some in the week of Biko’s 41st death anniversary protest in expressing mistrust in declaring Ramaphosa not fit to speak at a Biko lecture, what can this mean?

Let me then put my disclaimer upfront. Firstly, I am opposed to the idea of denying others to speak on national heroes, I am secondly opposed to the notion that there are only a special group of people who can by virtue of association, be it in organisational setting or friendship – claim uniquely to have the right to speak authoritatively on fallen heroes. In the third instance, I am never going to support the politics of disruption, where a person is to address a crowd and is denied because a certain group feel aggrieved by the one who is to speak.

I consciously condemned the politics of intolerance that often manifests the antics of booing back then as a student at UWC in the late 1980’s for its lack of appreciating the equal right to be heard and the need for safe spaces where the public contesting of views can be expressed. It is and remains my conviction that institutions of higher learning represent those spaces of free speech where the contestation of opposing views is afforded space to convince others in fairness. From that bedrock, I equally condemned the orchestrated booing of all from a Mbeki, to a Zuma who suffered that same fate at the Mandela’s Memorial held at the FNB stadium in 2013. I also condemned the subsequent continuance as led by COSATU at its Workers Day rallies in 2017, where we saw a selected group of top six booed and others in political expediency given a free pass to speak. I equally in this epoch condemn those who deny Ramaphosa a right to speak.

This week his address of the Steve Biko lecture was interrupted apparently by Black Land First (BLF) members if the placards are consistent of the organisation.  I condemned this incident too, because Ramaphosa is the caretaker president of SA and in that capacity, he has a right to be heard, address gatherings uninterrupted if he is invited to deliver any keynote address. The politics of minimalism should not define our discourse.

While I condemned the politics of disruption and denying others the right to exercise free speech, it is perhaps necessary to ask what could make up plausible reasons for those who claim him unfit thus arrogating a right to disrupt his address? Why would some say Ramaphosa is not fit to address a Biko lecture?

Perhaps this claim may have at its epicentre the subject of ideology in which some seek to locate Ramaphosa in a specific ideological frame? Those who red-card Ramaphosa in unfitness to speak on the father of Black Consciousness may rightfully do so, since they know that by 1985, with a COSATU pretty much moving forward, and a Ramaphosa directing it, he unreservedly and devoid of ambiguity disclaimed any genuine commitment to black consciousness. Black Consciousness an ideology he espoused as a student at Turfloop University. Ramaphosa would now retort, in reference to BC that at that stage ‘it was the in thing’.

His abandoning of the BC philosophy was for an acceptance of the ANC Freedom Charter. In the aftermath of a  detention period and exposure to this form of a  Magna Carta would now conclude on Black Consciousness with the following words “black consciousness was essentially a sectarian type of movement which tried to get black people to be on their own”, With this Ramaphosa was now expressing his conversion to the ideology of Freedom Charterism, he, therefore, presented himself now as a charterist.

Another reason why some may want to disqualify Ramaphosa to speak on Biko, could be linked to the fact that the man primarily responsible for introducing Ramaphosa to organised labour, and in particular the mining sector definition, of which Ramaphosa knew nothing about, the late Phiroshaw Camay later was rather cynical on Ramaphosa at a personal level. It was Camay who roped a young Ramaphosa into CUSA from where a NUM would emanate and ultimately a COSATU would emerge in a relationship between NUM and FOSATU, viewed Ramaphosa’s defection to COSATU as ‘an effort to get to the winning side, by gravitating to the most powerful of the labour union forces’

While all former ANC leaders owed an allegiance to a specific ideological stance for a primary base for their practice of politics, Ramaphosa represents the first of ANC presidents not essentially and originally groomed in the ANC. Anthony Butler in his Ramaphosa biography notes on the 1983 formation of NUM and its maiden executive elections that, ‘the big surprise of the Congress was the election of an unknown Elijah Barayi as vice- president.  Barayi was a Xhosa speaker from Cradock in the Eastern Cape.’ He furthermore asserts, Barayi who was also an ANC supporter…was probably the first ANC member that Ramapphosa had knowingly met.  From this, we can accept that Ramaphosa’s embracing and joining of the liberation movement.  ANC, was not organic but rather as Butler notes “a doctrinal and purely political decision”.

It is claimed by Ishmael Mkhabela, someone that befriended Ramaphosa at the Jabulani Flats in Soweto, that Ramaphosa’s singular reason for moving towards the ANC was its Freedom Charter, the same he defined as a ‘progressive document’.  From this, we may conclude that at a fundamental or existential level, for Ramaphosa the ANC prior to its 1960 gathering in Kliptown, understood in fragile, Native, Coloured and Indian congresses among others, had no meaning, or visionary document that would have inspired him to join.

It is an important point to pause on, because the history of the ANC from its inception in Waaihoek 1912, as an organisation that came about to organise Natives on the land issue, in deduction did not appear to naturally resonate with a Ramaphosa back then, he therefore takes comfort to understand the ANC in the frame of its articulation “we the people of South Africa…”  This may in this epoch explain his apparent truculence to engage the land issue devoid of ambiguity. Butler asserts that by 1988, Ramaphosa had been recruited to membership of an important underground ANC executive

Ramaphosa unlike many of that era did not immediately after the historic 76’student uprise featured in mental persuasion or conviction of joining the ANC in leaving SA. He was less than 24 months after the violent 1976, joining the Harry Oppenheimer initiated and Anton Rupert articulated Urban Foundation in what Irene Menell framed as a ‘charity gesture’.

To argue Ramaphosa can’t speak on Biko at surface level makes for narrow fish tank thinking. While we must attempt to hear those who red card him less in the booing, but in their questioning of a man whose ideological frame for politics adopts the form of an amoeba, whose commitments to an ideology that supported him, remains temporal always contesting for the next better deal. Black Consciousness influenced Ramaphosa like many of us, he was, therefore, influenced by BC at least for the early part of his political education.

Him a questionable character in an ideological frame was also seen when he emerged along with Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Cheryl Carolus and others as leftist in the UDF and COSATU organisations. Again, it was not an organic conversion to the doctrine of communist ideology which already by 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Mikhail Gorbachev’s transformation of the USSR saw many in the ANC abrogate an SACP membership.  Ramaphosa despite his association with Mac Maharaj a known communist, never really embraced communism, but saw it as a means to befriend those whom he might need in a future of his dream en-route to SA presidency. Cyril in an adroit sense developed the art of associating without making any permanent commitment to any ideological conviction. This became his means for political survival in spaces of essentially conflictual ideologically laced environments.

Ramaphosa therefore, remains a coagulum in ideological definition, that attests a perpetual political player with nothing but self in mind, always the one in search of a deal, let us hear Butler again when he helps us appreciate Ramaphosa’s meteoric rise as non-ANC and UDF leader and a junior figure of the MDM. He was according to Frank Chikane ‘not on the UDF radar’. According to Butler, “Some contemporaries also believe Cyril was very keen to secure this prize (Chairperson of Reception Committee) for himself. He had insinuated himself into the network around Mac Maharaj, and had taken every opportunity to demonstrate his suitability for a high-profile public position of just this kind.”

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It is this easily discarding of what others hold dear in ideological frames of persuasions and non-negotiables, the same Ramaphosa with ease of clothing in political agenda exchange for what appears to be self-serving interest can abandon, that renders some uncomfortable with him. We saw it with how he abandoned Phiroshaw Camay’s CUSA (Council of Unions of South Africa) in how he crafted a National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and ensured the hard-line non-negotiable African notion of a CUSA is ignored as he sought to establish a NUM around himself. We saw it in his abandoning of the philosophy of Black Consciousness – reducing it to a fad of student politics. We saw it with when his deal to succeed Mandela in ANC setting failed how he also in anger could abandon the ANC – SG position and refused to attend Mandela’s inauguration until Mandela created a role of a constitutional design player.

Let us also remember Ramaphosa never trusted Mandela on the latter’s engaging with the apartheid enemy, before his 1989 Victor Verster Prison visit., according to Mac Maharaj as cited in Butler’s biography on Ramaphosa, he told Maharaj, “I will tell him (Mandela) to stop talking to the fucking enemy”. When Maharaj later wanted to know from Ramaphosa if he did convey his bold and categorical views to Mandela, Ramaphosa danced around the subject rather expressing his new-found subliminal submission to Mandela, who left him overawed when the latter enquired about Ramaphosa’s family. Ramaphosa converted to Mandela in agreement of his actions less out of a debate in which the exchange of positions stood, he converted without any true cogent argument for his now abandoning of his distrust, suffice to be blown away by a man who enquired about his personal family. It must then confirm again the soluble frame of agreement or disagreement as a means to a political end with self at its epicentre.

Anyone who has taken the time to observe Ramaphosa will quickly realise, he is not to be cloaked in any ideological kaftans of antiquity or robes of longevity stitched together in meticulous loyalty. If Matamela Ramaphosa has survived forty years of public and political life in diverse settings and forms, it is less because of him being lucky but more so for his ability to use any popular or not ideology at his disposal to his end, for a period and then to discard it when the time in his assessment permits or when it threatens his road to political power, of SA presidency. He thus owes his political survival to his ability to ride the waves of ideological persuasions in moments of prominence as callous means to an end, with a detour at any time once his goals were seemingly attained. Ramaphosa is an astute dealmaker, he has been making deals since 1978 and is 40 years later an old hand at that. His true ideology is best understood in capitalist deal-making where the self-interest remains the only true centre.

He remains a man that as far back as 1978 prior to his first marriage, would joke with Henry Dolowitz, owner of the legal practice where he served as an articled clerk, and say, ‘when I am president, you will be made the minister of white affairs’. Butler asks us to observe the ambition of Ramaphosa though concealed in jest. Clearly a man who has set his eyes on becoming an SA president by any means.

It is this Ramaphosa that for some become challenging since they cannot see him loyal their ideals, defined in ideological persuasion, that affords some to deny him to speak as was the case at the Biko Lecture.

Despite the justifiable reasons and glaring evidence of a politician whose morning and night conversations may vastly differ, regardless to his amoeba-like manifestation of ideology, that shows in flip-flop ideological frames as a means to  a political end in which self- interest is central , I still would defend his right to speak at a Biko or any event.

Clyde Ramalaine

Political Commentator and Writer

An extract from “Ramaphosa, suspended in mistrust, SA’s caretaker president” due April 2019