South Africa changed last night. Last year, opposition MPs were ejected from the National Assembly chamber by force or left in disgust during the State Of the Nation address (Sona).
This year, they sang and clapped and laughed as they filed out, inspired by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first Sona.
It was more than an hour into Ramaphosa’s speech before speaker Baleka Mbete had to call for order when MPs got raucous as the speech touched on the state capture inquiry. But the disturbance was over quickly.
The next call for order was to get celebrating, singing MPs from all parties, including the vociferous opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, to quieten down so National Council of Provinces chairperson Thandi Modise could make an announcement.
Invoking the spirit of Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa was repeatedly and loudly applauded by the entire chamber during his speech.
The contrast with last year, when violence and dissent marked Jacob Zuma’s Sona could not have been more stark.
There were boos though when Ramaphosa thanked Zuma for how he handled his recall as president and for his service to the country.
But there was little anyone could have quibbled with in the content of Ramaphosa’s speech, which included some striking and, occasionally, radical commitments to change.
He promised to restore public confidence in the government; Commitment to ethical behaviour and leadership; A new, national minimum wage to improve the lives of more than six million South Africans; Improvements to government support for the poor and unemployed; and Land restitution, including, if necessary, expropriation without compensation.
However, such expropriation would not be done in a way that would damage the economy or agricultural production.
He also promised a programme, in partnership with business, to create one million paying internships for young people over the next three years; A reduction in the size of the Cabinet; A programme to combat Aids; A programme to tackle cancer; To remove bureaucratic barriers for small businesses; Government support in drought-stricken areas, including the Cape; and to revamp state-owned enterprises.
Ramaphosa promised to support and promote the agriculture, tourism and mining sectors as the main drivers of progress in the economy.
In many ways, parts of his speech were reminiscent of Mandela’s reconciliatory tone.
Ramaphosa said: “We are building a country where a person’s prospects are determined by their initiative and hard work, and not by the colour of their skin, place of birth, gender, language or income of their parents.”
He said the “new dawn” was “inspired by our collective memory of Nelson Mandela”.
He added: “As we rid our minds of all negativity, we should reaffirm our belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. For though we are a diverse people, we are one nation. There are 57 million of us, each with different histories, languages, cultures, experiences, views and interests. Yet we are bound together by a common destiny.
“We know there is still a lot that divides us. We remain a highly unequal society, in which poverty and prosperity are still defined by race and gender.”
In conclusion, he said: “While change can produce uncertainty, even anxiety, it also offers great opportunities for renewal and revitalisation, and for progress.
“Together, we are going to make history. Now is the time for all of us to work together, in honour of Nelson Mandela, to build a new, better South Africa for all.” (Citizen, Johannesburg)