We must not give President Cyril Ramaphosa too much leeway, lest he goes down the same road as former president Jacob Zuma.

This was the warning delivered at the Mail & Guardian’s critical thinking forum on Thursday.

An economist, accountant, academics, and activists gathered in Cape Town to discuss South Africa’s change in leadership and the recent delivery of the State of the Nation Address (Sona) and the Budget speech.

Throughout, the panellists warned against a premature celebration of the new dispensation and its promises to address the nation’s pressing challenges, and achieve what its predecessor could not. In summary, new leadership does not necessarily translate into a change on the ground.

“We have realised that we can’t trust our leaders and I think that is a really healthy place to be,” said Mark Swilling, Professor of Sustainable Development in the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University.

Because of the spotlight on state capture, Swilling said that South Africans were now vigilant, a place his fellow panellists agreed was necessary.

Swilling was one of six experts at the Forum that was held in partnership with the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Southern African Office.

The discussion focused on President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s maiden speeches and if this change in leadership had, in fact, any tangible impact.

Joining the professor at the Centre for the Book was Mandisa Dyantyi, Tshepo Motsepe, Khaya Sithole, Xhanti Payi, Tasneem Essop, and moderator Vukani Mde.

“Some people are saying we must give Ramaphosa space,” said Motsepe, general secretary of the national activist organisation, Equal Education.
“We must never give him space; we gave Zuma space for nine years and look what he did”.

Motsepe was steadfast in his argument that both the Sona and the Budget Speech remained counter to the needs of the country’s poor and working class.

“There was no plan in that budget for growth,” he said. “Poor people will have to make their own plan.”

Echoing Motsepe’s sentiments was his civil society colleague, the Social Justice Coalition’s secretary general, Mandisa Dyantyi.

“We are missing a prioritisation of the poor,” she said, adding that now that Ramaphosa had taken office, the work needed to begin to ensure that 10 years from now, South Africans would not again be wondering how they got to a point, seemingly, of no return.

Scholar, political commentator Tasneem Essop was equally cautious about celebrating the arrival of a new president. Essop said that while South Africa had indeed turned the corner on “brazen looting”, the ideology of the ANC remained firmly neoliberal, evident most recently in its decision to hike up value-added tax. Instead, a corporate tax would have indicated that the ANC was committed to bettering the lives of the poor, rather than protecting the interests of business and the elite.

“The worst off remain the worst off,” said Essop.

Activist and chartered accountant Khaya Sithole pointed to the government’s dual failure to adequately translate its discussions and campaigns into something that works as well as its inability to take ownership of the budget deficit. The former, he said, was evident in the rollout of laptops and iPads in Gauteng, which left many children vulnerable to criminal attack as well. Sithole said Ramaphosa had skipped the third and fourth revolutions which showed a disconnect with the reality on the ground.

For Xhanti Payi, economist and director of Nascene Advisory and Research, the recent Sona had refocused attention on the “original sin”, that of land.

“However, in addressing the land question, we cannot simply think of the loss and return of land, but also, that along with that is the loss of being able to work the land,” he said.

This, said Payi, was part of a larger need to create certainty around policy through clear outcomes. He concluded, reiterating Swilling’s initial comments: former President Jacob Zuma had brought South Africans to a place “where we are finally awake”.