Moments after administering the oath of office to President Cyril Ramaphosa, while Loftus Versfeld Stadium erupted in song, with military honours sounding and army guns firing a salute, Chief Justice Moegoeng Mogoeng tugged at the head of state’s right elbow.
Ramaphosa leaned in towards Mogoeng, a deeply religious man, and amid the din and colour and sound the two men had a private exchange. After about a minute or a little more Mogoeng gave Ramaphosa a leatherbound Bible with gold trimmed pages, and as Ramaphosa withdrew from the Chief Justice, he hesitated before Mogoeng sent him off to greet his wife, Tshepo Motsepe.
The head of state had a dour and stern expression on his face for most of the proceedings, which not only started exactly on time but also finished as advertised. From afar it seemed as if the full weight of the task he is now faced with only hit him now, and not 18 months and two weeks ago, when he managed to displace the corrupted former president Jacob Zuma.
Much has been written about what his most pressing tasks are. It includes reforming a corruption infested state and government, reparing an ailing economy, revitalising policy and getting the post-apartheid project back on track. Beyond affairs of governance, the internecine and incessant wars in Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters, will take up an inordinate and unnecessary amount of time – and will produce the most juicy headlines and gossip.
Saturday’s inauguration however was an inflection point in our country’s history. Up on the rostrum, sitting behind Ramaphosa, Motsepe and Mogoeng, sat most of the main protagonists in our public life from the past couple of decades.
Former president FW de Klerk, looking old but still headstrong, was welcomed with a round of boos and some applause. Kgalema Motlanthe, long-time ANC secretary general, deputy president and placeholder president, sat sagely in front of De Klerk and his wife, Elita. Next to Motlanthe and his wife, Gugu Mtshali, tucked away in a corner, sat former president Thabo Mbeki and his wife, Zanele. And in among them all sat Mbeki’s deputy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, accompanied by her husband, Bulelani, who in 2003 (when he was national director of public prosecutions) decided against prosecuting Zuma.
Zuma, the chief architect of grand corruption, a stuttering economy and a failing civil service, opted not to attend the ceremony, sending wife, Bongi Ngema, in his stead.
The ceremony was well-organised, world-class and ran like clockwork. The stadium, shimmering in the late autumn Pretoria sun, was a perfect venue to showcase service batallions from the army, navy, air force, military health services and the president’s guard strutting their stuff. And the flypast of what seemed like the whole of the air force was spectacular – especially the menacing (and massively expensive) Gripen fighter jets.
Throughout all of this Ramaphosa seemed pensive, with a frown on his face. He is busy navigating a change of government on a path beset on all sides by political landmines, enemies ready to pounce like hyenas and the expectation of a nation to repair the damage wrought by the Zuma era hovering over him.
His speech wasn’t long, maybe 20 minutes at most. In it he located South Africa squarely in Africa, as a nation wanting to play a leading role on the continent. A large part of his address was centred around issues of social justice and human rights, central tenets of the Constitution he helped birth in the 1990s.
He repeated his criticism of state capture and grand corruption which flourished under Zuma, saying that there were leaders who betrayed the trust South Africans put in them “and surrendered themselves to power and money” squndering the nation’s resources.
South Africa must be a society of equlity and justice “where a person’s worth is determined by how we value others”. It must be a non-racial country “that belong to all and where all belong”.
Ramaphosa’s advisors and speech-writers have been infusing the idea of fairness, non-racialism and good governance since before the ANC’s Nasrec elective conference in 2017. These themes have been threaded through all his major public statements since then, and his inauguration speech – though short – was no exception.
The ceremony represented the calm before the storm.
The past week saw some high-profile withdrawals from parliament, including his own deputy, David Mabuza, because of a range of allegations of wrongdoing. Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, judged to be either incompetent or negligent by the High Court, renewed her assault on Pravin Gordhan, Ramaphosa’s most trusted reformer. And rumours about the compostion of Cabinet are swirling.
When the crowd filtered out onto the street, with VIPs and dignitaries boarding buses to the various dinners and receptions, a tiny woman in a smart pink outfit jostled alone through the thronging masses to get a lift to her car. She looked tired but smiled as guests elbowed each other to get to the curb and the waiting transports first.
“We’re going to need all the support we can get. But I’m sure I have the right people around me. It’s an enormous task,” said Advocate Shamila Batohi, the national director of public prosecutions, as she disappeared into the crowd.
Mogoeng gave Ramaphosa a Bible. Maybe all he needs is Batohi.