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An analysis of Cyril Ramaphosa's strategic communication

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Strategic communication as policy and strategy ways: An analysis of Cyril Ramaphosa’s strategic communication

by Klaus Kotzé

BA Social Dynamics, BSocSci Honours Political Communication, Master in Global Studies, PhD Rhetoric Studies


In states facing precarious power arrangements, strategic communication is critical to commanding the internal strategy and policy environment. Strategic communication is a strategic approach, a strategic way in which policy is conducted and advanced. This article accordingly undertakes an examination of this aspect of Cyril Ramaphosa’s strategic presidency - not the policies themselves.

The paper looks at how Ramaphosa uses strategic communication to advance his policy and strategy interests. Ramaphosa’s challenge is to balance and lead two seemingly opposing centres of power. His leadership requires compromise and consensus; it also requires a creative approach. Ramaphosa embodies national values that inspire trust and persuade the citizens of South Africa to adopt his vision as theirs, forging a collective will to achieve national goals. This article examines Ramaphosa’s strategic approach to leadership, adding to the understanding of how strategic communication is exercised domestically in South Africa.

Keywords—South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, domestic strategic communication, social compact, presidential style

‘Our 1994 Consensus risks unravelling precisely because we have failed to utilise the settlement for what it was—a vehicle of transition for far-reaching changes, not an end point in itself’ (Jonas, 2019).

When Cyril Ramaphosa became president of South Africa on 15 February 2018, not only did he take office at a time of national distress, but he also assumed the presidency at a time when strategic communication (Hallahan, 2007) played a paramount role in shaping and commanding strategic environments (Bartholomees, 2012). Today, purposeful and persuasive communication performs a significant role in the form and procedure of presidential strategy. Strategic communication is an approach whereby ideas are mobilized through rhetorical agency. It presents a pathway to persuasion. The concept, while being used broadly and for varying applications, serves great practical use. It allows for a ‘holistic approach to communication, based on values and interests, that encompass everything an actor does to achieve objectives in a contested environment…there is often consensus around its operational components or processes of delivery: defining a message; identifying a specific audience; intending to achieve not simply an effect but real, measurable changes’ (Bolt, 2019).

Strategic communication is a central tool of executive policymaking and power. In our increasingly interconnected world, the information environment has become more diffuse and human agency within it more widely distributed. This means that strategic communication, which is often seen as an exercise beyond national borders, is pertinent locally as well. ‘Strategic communication is as important to internal audiences as it is to external ones’ (Tathan, 2008); it is the means for ‘persuading the nation’s citizens to support the policies of their leaders so that a national will is forged to accomplish national objectives. In this context, strategic communication is an essential element of national leadership’ (Halloran, 2007). For an impressionable state such as South Africa, with its complex history and unconsolidated power base, enlisting the persuasive power of local beliefs and shaping the strategic environment, is of primary importance. The state leadership must establish authority through prevailing in the battle of ideas and crafting the national interest. In the modern hypermediated era of diffused communications, citizens have greater access to power; power has taken on an increasingly distributed form. It is incumbent upon leaders to obtain trust and legitimacy through the pursuit of policy that advances values and principles. Leadership gives strategic communication its internal form by crafting messages that serve this national purpose. It is here that strategy is served by policy, not vice versa. Where strategic communication serves as the ways to policy’s means.

The strategic potential of communication has not been lost on Ramaphosa. He has used communication purposefully, advancing his claims to transcend the situation he inherited from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa’s approach serves the pragmatic aim of restoring and inspiring faith in the national project. Following an initial period of Ramaphoria, a number of questions have emerged around his executive performance and methodology. Domestic and international observers have become frustrated by the slow pace of progress in dealing with Zuma-era misdemeanours, while noisy commentators with limited or adversarial agendas are confusing a complex narrative. This article examines Ramaphosa’s strategic approach, revealing the complexity of the situation he is facing. It offers insight by surveying and detailing Ramaphosa’s regime of persuasion; describing the ways, means, and ends of his strategic communication (Bartholomees, 2006).

Historical background to South Africa’s current domestic strategic environment

A brief history will help readers appreciate the complex strategic environment in which Ramaphosa’s administration is situated. A historical background shows how strategic communication, has iteratively served the policy orientation of the state.

The National Party (Apartheid) government (1948–94) which was authoritarian, deeply ideological, and strictly hierarchical employed its own strategic communication. The Apartheid government had waged potent information warfare through its counter-insurgent Total Strategy for almost two decades (Kotzé, 2018). Its campaigns were based on control and it employed force to achieve persuasive ends. It was, consequently, unable to co-opt the credible, conservative black elite, whose support was necessary for maintaining the Apartheid government’s strategic position of ‘normalcy’. Eventually, the government accepted that it could not use the military to force compliance under Apartheid.

In the late 1980s, under new leadership, the government’s strategy changed from repression to negotiation, from maintaining a divided country under Apartheid to co-installing democracy. In his speech at the opening of Parliament on 2 February 1990, De Klerk employed his strategic communication, using the kairotic[1] international moment to make the first move towards a just, new political order, embarking the nation on the transition from Apartheid to constitutional democracy. His rhetorical performance achieved its strategic ends, removing constraints to negotiations and laying the foundation for sweeping reforms.

De Klerk engaged the African National Congress (ANC), the direct political rival of his own National Party. The agreement de Klerk negotiated, to pursue a united, democratic future for South Africa, critically shaped its politics and the presidencies that followed. Nelson Mandela understood this reality. The former militant did not meekly become the saint he is seen as now. Instead, Mandela acutely perceived and employed strategic communication. The ANC leader was pragmatic. He adapted, coaxed agreement from his adversaries, and waged a comprehensive battle for the hearts and minds of the public. He disabled his opponents tactically, through his strategic communication. Mandela famously encouraged his followers, that it is ‘precisely because Afrikaans is the language of the oppressor, we should encourage our people to learn it, its literature and history’ (Maharaj, 2010). Mandela built legitimacy, confidence, and gravitas into the South African presidency.

Mandela’s communication served to advance the interests of the state and the policies of the government. He recognised all the country’s diverse people as one; instead of advancing the idea of separateness, he endorsed national unity and therefore sovereign legitimacy and stability. The ANC’s moral authority and popular support allowed the party to claim responsibility for forging democracy and ending Apartheid. This superior account captured the public imagination and won the confidence of the people. The ANC’s political project successfully limited the potency of domestic opposition; it has since held an absolute majority in all national elections by presenting itself as synonymous with the ideals of the South African state. By generating a rich conceptual story, which blurred the lines between party and state, it secured the political trust of the nation.

With the ANC safe in its place as the national political force, the contest for power has shifted to take place within its ranks. While the state is constituted by ideals, the practice of politics hinges on political realities. In 2007, for the first time in more than 50 years, there was a radical contest for leadership of the ANC, initiating what has become the party’s new normal of factional rivalry. As had been the case at the ANC’s 38th National Conference in 1949, when Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and others challenged the moderate establishment, there was a bitter battle for the character of the ANC at the 52nd National Conference in Polokwane (Booysen, 2011). Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s immediate successor, who reigned as a philosopher-king, was pitted against Jacob Zuma’s leftist camp. Although Mbeki’s grand narratives continued Mandela’s appeal to ideals, his aloof intellectualism and detachment from the everyday lives of the poor were seen as neglect for their struggle, ripening the ground for Zuma’s populist declamation and radical aspirations. Zuma sang and danced to anti-Apartheid songs, comprehensively defeating his opponent with a 60% share of the vote. His argument was direct: ‘We have achieved political freedom and now we must achieve economic freedom (The Citizen, 2014).’

Jacob Zuma’s convincing election presented a shift from leading by aspirational ideals to pursuing specific, tangible ends. His strategic communication was materially motivated. Zuma’s ANC presidential acceptance speech made it clear that a National Democratic Revolution (NDR) (ANC, 2007) would be the party’s guiding philosophy and the policy orientation of his leadership. He reiterated this centrality, of party policy vis-à-vis state interest, when he became national president. The NDR’s prescriptive measures, such as direct demographic representation, are at odds with the national Constitution. The often-contradictory pursuits of the ANC vis-à-visthose of the state is the axis whereupon South Africa’s strategic environment has tilted (ANC, 2012). Under Zuma, unlike Mbeki or Mandela, the national project would be subordinated to the policy orientation of the ANC, not to the prescripts of the national Constitution. Zuma explained: ‘[The ideal state] should not be confused with tactical positions that the liberation movement may adopt from time to time’ (ANC, 2007). Zuma’s advance of radicalism determined that the policy of the ANC, not that of government, would function as the authoritative guiding hand of national political power.

Enter Ramaphosa

Ramaphosa’s presidential strategy is determined by the complex challenge of leading two centres of power, the ANC and the state. His policy orientation and strategic actions are contingent on the tension between the policy of the ANC, and the strategic interests of the state. Whereas his position as state president is subject to his ability to preserve party unity. Any examination of Ramaphosa’s presidency must recognise the circumstances of his claim to power. He must balance state and party interests. His task of aligning ANC policies to fortify solidarity in support of his leadership determines the strategic environment. His approach is therefore founded on compromise and consensus. An examination of Ramaphosa’s path to power reveals these conditions to have shaped his character and his leadership style.

Ramaphosa gained his political profile as the founder of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an influential labour structure formed in 1982. The NUM was the first black union to achieve significant bargaining power. Ramaphosa played a pivotal role in South Africa’s transition to democracy. In 1994 he was appointed Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, the body responsible for drafting South Africa’s Constitution. In 2012, Ramaphosa returned as Zuma’s Deputy President, preparing to take power in 2017, as is the tradition of succession in the ANC. Ramaphosa would bide his time. As his previous track record had shown, he would act only once he was in charge.

The organisational decay and system of patronage in the ANC constrain Ramaphosa’s political situation. Striking a balance between party and state depends on Ramaphosa’s ability to set the agenda and to persuade his party members to follow his lead. He must proclaim a set of ideals, without aggravating any vital constituency of the ANC. He must claim and situate his power, maintaining order while avoiding factional volatility. He must rely on strategic communication to advance his leadership, coordinating all the resources at his disposal in order to shape perceptions and build influence. Strategic communication is assessed here as a holistic practice — both a process and an approach.

Given that ‘everything communicates’, the ‘key to an effective strategy is therefore to understand actors and audiences, then integrate policies, actions and words across government in a coherent way to build national resilience and leverage strategic influence’ (Heap, 2018). Today’s hyper-mediated and mediatised strategic environment empowers and obliges national leaders to direct perception in order to persuade. A president has the executive authority to create meaning according to his personal ethos — to shape the national story. We now consider Ramaphosa’s strategic communication, drawing on Harry Yarger’s understanding of strategy as the ways, means, and ends of power (Halloran, 2007).

Ramaphosa’s strategic ends

Pursuing South Africa’s aspirational Constitution

Ramaphosa’s statements and actions establish him as a Constitutionalist (Swilling, 2019). His strategic communication pursues a vision of a capable South Africa as depicted in the country’s aspirational Constitution. As set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution, Ramaphosa’s government seeks to ‘heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and to build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations’ (RSA, 1996).

As Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, Ramaphosa was one of the architects of what he has endearingly described as ‘the birth certificate of the nation’ (Smith, 2016). The Constitution ‘belongs to all of us [...]. We claim it as ours, it enshrines the rights that make us live as South Africans, and we will protect it because it belongs to us’ (Ramaphosa, 2012). ‘[I]t is the repository of everything, everything that I ever dreamt of, that I ever wanted in my life. It gives me strength, it gives me hope, it protects me. If anyone were ever to violate my rights, our Constitution is my shield (Seagal & Cort, 2012).’

Ramaphosa’s proclaimed allegiance to the Constitution gives clarity to his strategy of empowering the state while not alienating the ANC. This appears to be the inverse of Zuma’s approach; the former president’s legacy lives on through a contingent of senior party representatives who remain loyal to him. This reality prevents Ramaphosa from taking sides against factions within the party. Instead, he seeks to empower the state by encouraging confidence in his leadership of the ANC.

Ramaphosa’s strategic communication purposefully crafts a consolidated national identity to advance the national interest. Given the constraints placed on him by the political legacy of his predecessor, Ramaphosa wants to demonstrate that he is advancing the national interest above that of the party. He prioritises strategic command of the nation over leadership of the party; he leads the party by leading the nation. These circumstances demand that strategic communication be employed beyond the marketing of party politics.

With the evolution of power in the 21st century, where strategic communications play a critical role in shaping the domestic strategic environment, this inward-looking consolidation of the national interest is extremely valuable. As the world is opening up and power becomes diffused and takes on new, often irregular forms, the primary safeguard against information campaigns attacking sovereign states is the clear articulation and consolidation of the domestic ethos. The expression of local beliefs and values is primary. A state cannot effectively exercise foreign policy when there is local disorientation and confusion about the national interest.

The State of the Nation

Ramaphosa’s strategy emerges from his public speeches and political gestures. The day after he was elected, on 16 February 2018, Ramaphosa gave his first presidential address — the State of the Nation Address (SONA), South Africa’s version of America’s State of the Union address. There is no legislative requirement for this annual speech to be given at the opening of the new parliamentary session; it is a ritual introduced by Mandela. The address is a ceremonial reconstitution of the state’s values where, in ‘one gesture, in one voice, the nation finds itself being “stated”’ (Salazar, 2002). Parliament defines the SONA as ‘a political statement of the President that sets out a social contract that seeks to [...] constitute the fabric of our nation’ (Parliament, 2019).

The SONA is a pomp-and-circumstance celebration—guns salute, children wave the national flag, and, in a manner unique to South Africa, a praise-singer, or Imbongi, introduces the President to a joint sitting of Parliament, usually to singing and clapping. Ramaphosa’s SONA speech was the ideal platform from which to launch his presidential strategic communication, to present a ‘non-partisan address that maps a holistic pathway to the future’ (Parliament, 2019).

Ramaphosa clearly understood that he would be addressing a larger audience than those who had congregated in the House of Assembly to hear their newly elected president speak. The SONA is a national and international media event, and therefore an opportunity to claim national authority, embody the vision and the mission of the state, and thereby inspire in the public and South Africa’s business partners a sense of confidence. Departing from Zuma’s strategy of reciting his government’s plan of action for the upcoming year, Ramaphosa used the occasion to rally his audience around an alluring story of what South Africa could become. He appealed to his constituents to form a consensus around the adoption of civic responsibility—to adopt and exhibit the Constitutional values as their own.

As Hans Kelsen (1967) pointed out, power does not follow from statements of fact, but from embodiments of norms. Such embodiment ‘epitomizes the republican identification of politics and persuasion, for embodiment is a rhetorical accomplishment that in turn fuses speech and action, speaker and subject’ (Hariman, 1995). Leadership, as an act of influence, does not simply subscribe to certain norms. It is through the embodiment of norms that leadership is claimed, and norms are redefined. Ramaphosa’s claim to power has been indirect; he does not assert himself personally as a great leader to be followed but embodies the norms and values enshrined in the Constitution he believes in.

Ramaphosa’s inaugural SONA set his agenda. It opened a new chapter by marking the political transition that had taken place. The new president commenced his first public speech by cordially thanking the former president. Ramaphosa concludes and transcends the Zuma era by creating a bridge, over Zuma’s leadership, to that of Mandela. His words did not simply close the door on Zuma but sought to expunge his command by invoking Mandela’s moral authority: ‘Guided by his example, we will use this year to reinforce our commitment to ethical behaviour and ethical leadership. In celebrating the centenary of Nelson Mandela, we are not merely honouring the past, we are building the future […]. We should honour Madiba[2] by putting behind us the era of discord, disunity and disillusionment [...] because a new dawn is upon us. It is a new dawn that is inspired by our collective memory of Nelson Mandela’ (Ramaphosa, 2018a).

Claiming the New Dawn

Throughout his presidency, Ramaphosa has consistently promoted the idea of the New Dawn. This project represents his vision of South Africa overcoming the preceding dark episode, a period he later called the ‘nine lost years’ (Haffejee, 2019), and ushering in a new, revitalised era. Ramaphosa was elected to his first full term as President by the National Assembly on 22 May 2019. At his inauguration speech on 25 May, Ramaphosa claimed personal responsibility for the New Dawn by stating: ‘Through the irrefutable power of the ballot on 8 May,[3] South Africans declared the dawn of a new era (Ramaphosa, 2019a).’ Ramaphosa’s New Dawn rests on a number of pillars.

First, it is premised on sovereign accord; stability and order must first be secured. On many occasions, including at the SONA, Ramaphosa has emphasised the need for national unity: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, a diverse but united nation. Bound together by a common destiny […] we are a nation at one. We are one people […] while there are many issues on which we may differ, on these fundamental matters, we are at one (Ramaphosa, 2018a).’ By reigniting a feeling of national solidarity, Ramaphosa is seeking to counter the ongoing fraying of the political settlement achieved by Mandela to advance the imperative of any national political arrangement: the preservation of stability. To inspire the people in a unified and common purpose, he draws on Mandela’s gravitas, reminding them of the covenant Madiba sought to build to advance a just and capable state. Ramaphosa affirms that the ‘defining thing about the new dawn must be our ability to govern well, to create a capable state [...] a state where we will know that everybody who is in the state is there to advance the interests of our people (Ramaphosa, 2018b).’

Second, the New Dawn is both the commencement and the realisation of renewal, both an end to the previous era and a forward-looking process. The new president claims that South Africa is ‘emerging from a period of stagnation and strife’ (Maromo, 2018). He seeks acceptance for reform from the same entities (the ANC and the ANC-led government) that caused the atrophy. The New Dawn promises to address the deficiencies of the previous regime, such as ‘policy uncertainty, the weakening of public institutions and high-level corruption [that] undermined investor confidence and public trust’. ‘We are now firmly on the path of renewal and rebuilding’, says Ramaphosa (Maromo, 2018). Furthermore, by recognising the failures of both the ANC and the government, the New Dawn stimulates a deliberative approach to creating a better South Africa. In bringing the deficiencies of the past to light, Ramaphosa has initiated renewal, inspiring the nation to recreate itself: ‘Fellow South Africans, our country has entered a period of change [...] Our task, as South Africans, is to seize this moment of hope and renewal, and to work together to ensure that it makes a meaningful difference in the lives of our people (Ramaphosa, 2018a).’ Ultimately, Ramaphosa describes South Africa’s renewal as the resolve to ‘break with all that divides us, to embrace all that unites us’; to ‘cure our country of the corrosive effects of corruption’; to ‘restore the integrity of our institutions’; and ‘to advance the values of our Constitution’ (Ramaphosa, 2019b). Ramaphosa authoritatively communicates that he is capable of ensuring this longed-for renewal. Finally, Ramaphosa’s strategic narrative about the New Dawn advances his vision of South Africa as a fully transformed, democratic state, while simultaneously announcing that the journey toward democratic consolidation is yet to be completed. This path is presented as the natural continuation and maturation of the first transition. Herein, Ramaphosa presents an eloquent plan to neutralise the idea of the radical second transition; his vision counters the NDR’s millenarianism. Instead of moving society towards a pre-configured outcome, the New Dawn returns the national focus to the approach and tools used in the earlier transition led by Mandela.

His approach was based on ideals and process, on inclusion, compromise, and reconciliation. By recalling to mind that unprecedented democratic transition out of Apartheid, Ramaphosa employs sentimentality and a sense of achievement to inspire belief that the promises of the New Dawn can indeed be accomplished (Parliament, 2018).

Apartheid was finally dismantled in 1994; in 2019 Ramaphosa used the 25th anniversary of this remarkable achievement as a kairotic moment when South Africans could recognise the intervening failures of government and renew their energy and direction (Ramaphosa, 2019b). With his promise of a New Dawn he hoped to inspire the people to adopt his resolve and make this national project their own. For his vision to be realised, the government must have the necessary institutional capacity; the slogan—New Dawn—must be translated into state practice through effective administration. However, it is the people, not the politicians, who must achieve renewal and democratic consolidation, and the people have not been uniformly inspired and mobilised. Moreover, the limited nature of the reforms Ramaphosa has enacted so far is causing public frustration; analysts and public commentators are further constraining his political momentum by labelling Ramaphosa slow and indecisive (Mkhabela, 2019). To achieve his goals he must have the people behind him.

Ramaphosa’s strategic ways

‘Politics is an art… By understanding how matters of style are crucial to the practice of politics, we discover not sham, but design, not decoration, but a world of meaning (Hariman, 1995).’

Cyril Ramaphosa’s style

Ramaphosa’s strategy is expressed through his style; the way he employs the tools at hand to pursue his goals. Style gives dynamism to values, showing how ideals are expressed. Communication must always suit its purpose, setting, and audience. Style is not incidental but critical to how an argument is constructed. Style is the way in which a strategic environment is claimed; how alternative ideas and truths are displaced (Hariman, 1995).A leader’s claim to authority will be styled in a specific manner: Ramaphosa embodies the values of the Constitution to demonstrate the South African President’s belief in the sovereignty of those values.

Ramaphosa’s use of the Constitution to mobilise a multi-faceted response to South Africa’s unique political and social problems best illustrates what biographer Anthony Butler (2007) calls his ‘visionary pragmatism’. Unlike many in the ANC, Ramaphosa ‘could not commit his imagination to Marxist revolutionary fantasies. He worked hard to create institutions of self-government [...] demonstrating an ingrained pragmatism’ (Butler, 2007). The roles Ramaphosa played in founding the National Union of Mineworkers, in negotiating the end of Apartheid, and in chairing the Constitutional Assembly all exemplify his conviction that properly-formed institutions can give momentum to the embodiment of ideals.

As president, Ramaphosa facilitated negotiations regarding the National Minimum Wage Act. The Act presents a mechanism for stabilising the South African labour market but it has been criticised as both insufficient and untenable given the national labour-wage equation. However, the value of the Act is not about the introduction of a minimum wage; it is not intended as a simple fix. Instead, its value lies in the institutionalising purpose it serves. It provides a framework for addressing the complex and heady issues of labour relations and income inequality. The introduction of the minimum wage was preceded by four years of negotiations. ‘In the end’, said Business Unity’s Tanya Cohen, ‘we did manage to find a sweet spot, between what is socially acceptable and economically efficient’ (Nieselow, 2018). For the consensus-seeking Ramaphosa, ‘the national minimum wage represents the triumph of cooperation over conflict, of negotiation over confrontation [...] it could only be resolved through negotiation [...]. This national minimum wage is a stepping-stone towards having a living’ wage (Ramaphosa, 2018c).

Ramaphosa’s leadership style can be seen in the way he managed the negotiations that ultimately led to the implementation of the National Minimum Wage Act. As is the case with the other offices he has held, Ramaphosa acts from a position of authority, corralling the various stakeholders involved in an issue into negotiating a settlement wherein all parties are afforded a portion of their claim. By accommodating some elements of everyone’s wishes, he binds them as members of a consensus decision. The collective process is superior to specific claims. The leader is bolstered by a united assembly. However, this increases the pressure on the President to act decisively, as expectations inevitably mount, and when they are not met with assiduousness and follow-through, can lead to increased public frustration.

Ramaphosa’s strategic foundation is his ability to negotiate and achieve consensus. He maintains a dispassionate position regarding specific details; ‘the benefits of the compromise were greater than the costs’ (Butler, 2007). He brings together the various motions and only then decides which position to take; this allows him to frame a situation without overpowering it. It also affords the public a sense of agency and builds trust through broad inclusion. Ramaphosa is able to frame an issue so that others accept the way it is expressed, and then steer the resolution. Given South Africa’s diversity, a unified outcome is preferable to a one-sided decision. He maintains his advantage through inclusivity, by speaking for all South Africans; this tactic also aids him in surmounting the arguments of those who present partisan views.[4] In Ramaphosa’s words: ‘the strength of doing this is to be able to bring together South Africans who have a contribution to make, who have views to put across so that we engage everyone and come out with best solutions ever. And this is what I will say defines my style of leadership, which was Madiba’s style of leadership (Ramaphosa, 2018a).’ Equating himself with Mandela is a tactical move on Ramaphosa’s part. It remains to be seen whether he can imitate Mandela’s executive decisiveness.

Identification and servant leadership

Engaging the diverse population in cooperation and consensus stimulates all parties to identify themselves as South Africans (Ramaphosa, 2019c). Drawing on Mandela’s pathos, Ramaphosa uses symbolism and metaphor to shape his image in line with the story he wishes to tell; by being a leader who identifies with national ideals he evokes solidarity. The skilful employment of this identification can be a powerful tool for forging a feeling of unity. The persuaded are guided by the persuader who appears as one of them, not apart or superior, assuming their interests as his and instituting specific forward-looking attitudes. Ramaphosa wants to be a leader who achieves his end by persuading the people to identify with the goals and visions of the state, engaging with their sense of civic responsibility.

Slogans such as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ are programmatic injunctions that have been used to shape South Africa’s national identity. Inviting the public to identify with him, Ramaphosa employed another slogan. At the conclusion of his inaugural SONA, Ramaphosa strategically appealed to both public endorsement of his leadership and to popular participation in his vision for the country, saying: thuma mina [‘send me’]. These words are taken from a song by late South African jazz great, Hugh Masekela. At the end of his speech Ramaphosa quoted the lyrics: ‘I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around...I wanna lend a hand, send me (Masekela, 2002).’ Ramaphosa invoked one of South Africa’s greats to appeal to the people, in their own language, to take ownership of the state of their nation and to claim the New Dawn. Ramaphosa implores the people to follow him, saying: ‘now is the time to lend a hand...Now is the time for each of us to say, “send me” (Ramaphosa, 2018a).’ ‘Thuma Mina’ is an inspirational call to each South African to answer Masekela’s charge to imagine and to build an inclusive, just, and equal society.

Thuma Mina, in the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 appeal ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’, is a persuasive technique to inspire action. Here, Ramaphosa shows the appropriate route and then inspires others to follow. It is an approach that strives towards servant leadership, a biblical precept best illustrated by Jesus. A servant leader, says Kgatle (2018), is one who ‘must first be a model of credibility, diligence, and the spirit of servant leadership. The second role of leadership is pathfinding, wherein a vision is discerned. The third role is that of alignment; unless you institutionalise your values, they will not happen. The fourth role is to empower people; the fruit of the three other roles’. The outcome of servant leadership is the creation of communities that ascribe to the values of the leader. It is setting up a future that can easily be disconnected from memory and the past. It is in this way, similar to Mandelaism, as conceptualised by Mpofu and Chasi (2017), that Ramaphosa’s sign systems have a magically detached element akin to mythology without context.

Ramaphosa’s lionising of Constitutional values, much in the way that Mandela was lionised, leads to a message or belief structure that is tied to ideals and not action and it is for his failure to act decisively that Ramaphosa’s tenure as President has come under severe pressure. Together with his broad consultation, his tendency to float above the nuts and bolts of the problems on the ground, has seen Ramaphosa being criticised for inaction. Without decisive action, it matters little what policy orientation is chosen.

Towards a new social compact

Throughout his communications, Ramaphosa returns to the urgency of re-establishing a national social compact. A social compact is an active agreement that enjoins all citizens of a country, as participants in the practice of democracy, to engage in nation-building and the creation of national accord. Given the intractable political situation that Ramaphosa inherited upon assuming the presidency, he chose to set the social compact as a cornerstone of his strategic communication. He implores: ‘If we are to achieve the South Africa we want, we need a new social compact’ (Ramaphosa, 2019d).

A social compact is the glue that binds the members of a society to their leader and ensures their civic agency. It serves as a foundation for the process of forming a consensus among diverse players. The value of the social compact is that those involved are more willing to subordinate themselves to the public interest. Citizens are assured that they will not be weakened but empowered by the institutional capacity they are asked to help build from the bottom up. This approach brings the public into partnership with the government, which for its part reciprocates with a commitment to effective governance (Ramaphosa, 2019a).

According to Ramaphosa: ‘Our task, as South Africans, is to seize this moment of hope and renewal and to work together […]. We will do this by getting social partners in our country to collaborate in building a social compact on which we will create drivers of economic recovery’ (Ramaphosa, 2018a).

Ramaphosa advances the validity of the social compact by submitting that it was Mandela who first argued for its value. Mandela is quoted as saying: ‘None of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation-building’ (Ramaphosa, 2019e). The appeal of the new social compact draws on the success of the transition from Apartheid to democracy. It was the social compact, comprehensively entered into by the diversity of South Africans, when people recognised each other as equals, refusing to be forced apart, that broke down the walls of Apartheid. The government was forced to fundamentally change its strategy; it could not ‘centrally reform into one, a system which under Apartheid was distinctly two… [it could not] permanently include a majority it considered as other’ (Kotzé, 2018). To Ramaphosa the social compact is the path to renewal made possible by consensus: ‘The progress we have achieved over the last year—and the successes we need to register in the months and years ahead—ultimately depends on our ability to revitalise and strengthen the social compact between government, business, labour and civil society’ (Ramaphosa, 2019f).

By establishing a new social compact Ramaphosa seeks to generate greater public endorsement of the Constitution as a transformative framework; the Constitution comprises an authoritative compendium of compacts, where the ‘body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people’ (National Humanities Institute, N.d.). The social compact is a pragmatic expression of the democratic project. South Africa’s aspirational Constitution fortifies Ramaphosa’s compelling vision of the ideal state; the people are encouraged to recognise the superiority of this goal and are asked to employ their civic agency in its pursuit. The inclusive approach invites participation, shaping the situation to build common ground and to deny and displace the radicalism of the Zuma era.

The establishment of a social compact is also a remedial action taken in response to the increasing sentiment that Constitutionalism is under threat from civic atrophy and populism. This is the point of view held by former Deputy Finance Minister, Mcebisi Jonas, who was dismissed by Zuma after blowing the whistle on his corrupt activities. Jonas suggests that outright cynicism ‘which views the 1994 consensus as a carve-up among the elites’ has overtaken the nostalgic feeling of the ‘rainbow nation, emblematic of a time when South Africans broke out of their narrow ideological straitjackets and placed the national interest above all else’ (Jonas, 2019); ‘[T]he 1994 consensus has reached its sell-by date’, said Jonas. ‘In fact, it is unravelling (Jonas, 2019).’ As opposed to transformation through the Constitution, there has been a rise of those who see the Constitutional settlement as an obstacle to radical transformation. The institutionally destructive state capture of the Zuma period was facilitated by this very argument.

It is not within the ambit of this paper to detail state capture in South Africa. It can, however, be described in brief as the improper and illegal restructuring of the state apparatus to pursue Zuma’s ‘radical transformation’, subordinating national institutions through deliberate strategy (Cairs, 2017). The legacy of state capture has left South Africa in a weakened condition, its confidence damaged and its national legitimacy crippled. Jonas supports using the social compact to repair the damaged state. The brokering of ‘a new consensus’, says Jonas, ‘will require new levels of leadership vigour across political formations as well as business, labour and civil society […]. Without a new vision of where we are going, [...] our new consensus will be stillborn’ (Jonas, 2018).

Visionary approach

Ramaphosa’s visionary approach is a central feature of his strategic communications; vision and the social compact are his ways of framing the national situation and they are key to countering the enchantment of radicalism. Vision is the path through which Ramaphosa connects the troubled present to the renewed future. His re-introduction of vision into modern South Africa’s political strategy and discourse has caught the public, and the political establishment, off guard. He has been criticised for the impalpable proposals he made in his post-election SONA. He departed from what had become the tradition, under Zuma, of listing multicomponent, short-term solutions to complex problems. Instead, Ramaphosa has invoked a visionary achieved state, a ‘dream we can all share and participate in building’ (Ramaphosa, 2019c). His ‘performance of nation’, a reimagining of the state (Ramaphosa, 2019c), is an appeal to the people of South Africa to embrace the New Dawn and a renewed social compact; ‘I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect’ (Ramaphosa, 2019c). Unlike the previous social compact, which reconciled the two sides of Apartheid’s divide, Ramaphosa commits to using his power to move the nation forward. Demonstrating belief in the future must be the first step towards overcoming the present political malaise. While empowering the people, it also makes room for criticism.

Ramaphosa directs the nation’s gaze towards a visionary goal, realigning the hearts of the people with the aspirations of the struggle against Apartheid, transporting the power of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution to the present day. Asking the nation to dream is a strategic gamble: ‘We share a common future, and we need to forge a common path towards its realisation’ (Ramaphosa, 2019c). Given the constraints and national tensions with which they must contend, Ramaphosa’s dream seeks to embolden the public with a vision all South Africans can share. If he is able to capture the imaginations of the people, inspiring a feeling of solidarity, Ramaphosa’s dream has the chance to transcend party lines. Dreaming, as was the case with ‘the American Dream’, transcends policy or partisan lines. It liberates and empowers the individual to claim personal responsibility.

The strategic use of vision not only shapes the aspirations of the nation, it is also a salve for desperation. By redirecting attention toward a positive future, he avoids being criticised when short term targets are not met. In a tactical move to motivate the people to open their hearts and minds to his vision, Ramaphosa concluded his response to the post-election SONA debate by quoting from Proverbs: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ (Ramaphosa, 2019c).

Strategically, the overture to vision stimulates both private and corporate initiative and responsibility to empower the framework and function of national institutions. Presently the public sector wage bill comprises an enormous 14% of national GDP (Head, 2019). South Africans are receiving some of the world’s worst value-for-money services. The bloated administration and welfare state (Mtantato, 2018), together with its failing state-owned companies, are in serious trouble, drowning the state in debt and are only being kept afloat for strategic reasons. This is taking place while the citizenry’s political fealty to the ANC and the influence of the far left impedes critical adjustment. The ANC is kept in power because, unlike under Apartheid, the majority of people have representation and the right to services. Regardless of its factionalism and poor service delivery, the ANC remains the only option for the majority of South Africans. This has once again been proven during the recent election when the ANC received 57.5% of the national vote.

The troubled state of the nation, together with the delicate balance of power in the ANC, necessitate Ramaphosa’s desperate strategic approach. It’s an approach designed to inspire belief and renew the economic viability of the state through support for entrepreneurial activity (Ramaphosa, 2019d). Rather than turning to privatisation - a measure that may be blocked by the ruling alliance - Ramaphosa has entered into discussion with powerful unions to enlist their help in strategically restructuring the state-owned companies he calls ‘sewers of corruption’ (Kgosana, 2018). By combining his strategy of cooperative consensus-building and inspiring civic responsibility with increasing support offered to private initiatives, especially small businesses, Ramaphosa has commenced a new programme aimed at the entrepreneurial revitalisation of the state.

Ramaphosa’s strategic means

The state as a strategic resource

Ramaphosa seeks to advance his strategy for renewing South Africa as a capable state through the agency of the state itself. The primacy of the state as a symbolic tool of power is clear to Ramaphosa. Observing the display of military resources at Mandela’s 1994 inauguration, he reflected on the potency of the state to tell a definitive story and thereby act as a legitimate facilitator. He wrote that, under Apartheid, ‘to the majority of South Africans these displays of military might were a grand symbol of nothing more than white minority aggression and terror [...]. [O]vernight their function—and the symbolism that we attach to them—had fundamentally and irreversibly changed. No longer were the jets instruments of oppression. Now they were guardians of democracy’ (Ramaphosa, 1996).

The power of the state rests on an undisputed claim to sovereignty. To be legitimate, the state must be perceived as such — the regime must tell a convincing story. In order to achieve justice, the government must express justice through its institutions. Having assumed leadership of a compromised state, Ramaphosa must employ that same state to re-establish authority and stability. Renewal functions as a process whereby a vision is achieved through the deployment of resources.

One means of doing this is to continue the tradition of establishing commissions of inquiry initiated by previous presidents. Commissions such as the Nugent Commission of Inquiry into Tax Administration and Governance investigate institutional propriety to restore credibility and improve capacity. The commission is a useful mechanism for telling an authoritative story about justice, for exercising national command. The power of these internal mechanisms lies in the strategic narrative they convey, in the exhibition of procedure and not in their findings, which are rarely binding and often neglected. Instead, these are performances of governance. They are aspirational stories that recognise irregularities rather than correcting them, making suggestions for how to proceed into the future. Commissions of inquiry, routinely overseen by senior justices, present an increasingly legal approach to governance concerns. Their prominence and the reliance placed on them indicate a recognition of the failure of political procedure. On the other hand, commissions perform the revitalisation of institutional capacity (Ramaphosa, 2018a); transcending the past by composing a picture of amelioration.

To undo the state capture he inherited, a core concern of Ramaphosa’s programme has been to reclaim state policy instruments. Initially hamstrung by ineffective departments, he has freed resources and consolidated authority by streamlining his Cabinet from 36 to 28 ministers. Some credible, experienced candidates have been appointed to critical positions including the Head of the National Prosecuting Authority and the Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service.

Ramaphosa has focused on a careful, and therefore slow, clean-up of government institutions, while restraining political opponents in his party. Instead of imposing his authority, Ramaphosa’s strategy is to re-capacitate state institutions so they can both model and facilitate best practice and recover the goods lost as spoils tostate capture. He has charged panels comprised of experts with the task of selecting new heads of organisations. In so doing, he is distancing himself from the selection process and redressing the patronage system associated with Zuma’s appointments, targeting the populist cult of personality developed under Zuma. Ramaphosa has enacted a new, meritocratic precedent based on building consensus. This, among other actions, is directed at correcting the past by empowering institutions, instead of individuals, to lay the foundation for a capable state before implementing policies.

However, this process has proven to be time-consuming, frustrating the public desire to see results.Ramaphosa is deliberate in his approach, instilling proper procedure from the top without allowing himself to be rushed, or the process to become politicised. In order to set an example of best practice, he needs to follow the book. By depoliticising the power of the state bureaucracy, he is subverting interests ulterior to the power of the state. In so doing, Ramaphosa discharges his responsibility — to both the party and to the electorate — to lead. This approach can be seen to be of little substance when it comes to policy breakthroughs and outcomes. Much of the espoused renewal remains deadlocked by political constraints. Whereas Ramaphosa may be recapacitating the presidency, the policy outputs of cabinet and a government maligned by factions are preventing real implementation. While the party remains divided and weak, so too policy implementation will be hamstrung.

Tools for restructuring and renewal

While it is too early to determine its effectiveness, the attention given to structural considerations strategically builds influence and confidence. In a particularly insightful speech delivered to the World Economic Forum in 2019, Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s plans to create an environment that is attractive for development: ‘We therefore come to Davos with a single message, and this year the message is that South Africa is on a path of growth and renewal’ (Ramaphosa, 2019f). To advance this charge, his government is leading investment into the state. The government has begun to reallocate public spending to strategic sectors such as agriculture and small business development and has launched a stimulus package and an infrastructure fund (Ramaphosa, 2019b) to advance economic growth and investment.

Ramaphosa’s promotion of opportunities, such as the recently established African Continental Free Trade Agreement, is intended to bolster South Africa’s strategic attractiveness. He has, furthermore, personally launched an ambitious investment drive, aiming to raise USD100 billion in new investments during his administration. For this, he has appointed a team of business and finance experts that include Trevor Manuel, former Finance Minister, and current senior advisor to the investment bank and financial services company, Rothschild & Co.

Ramaphosa has implemented targeted reforms to ensure that policies are enacted. These include new ‘visa regulations to encourage more visitors, as well as making it easier for investors and business people to visit South Africa’; a Mining Charter ‘that balances the need for transformation with the imperative for new investment’; the allocation of a ‘high-demand radio spectrum to accelerate broadband access and promote competition within the sector’; and the signing of ‘long-outstanding agreements with independent power producers’ to restart South Africa’s successful renewable energy projects (Ramaphosa, 2019f). All these are corrective measures to redress corrupt Zuma-era policies and bureaucratic stagnation. All have commenced but have not been completed. They are also all measures intended to diminish the government’s involvement, advancing South Africa’s strategic attractiveness for investment and growth.

These reforms to consolidate and streamline regulatory processes aim to improve the ease of doing business in South Africa, which currently ranks 82nd in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. Ramaphosa has targeted this instrument as a barometer for success, indicating that his ‘administration has set itself the ambitious goal of being in the top 50’ (Ramaphosa, 2019g). In another move to improve the functioning of his government, Ramaphosa has established the Policy Analysis and Research Service to improve the development and coordination of policies across government; a similar policy unit that performed as a clearinghouse for policy processes under President Mbeki, was disbanded under Zuma.

A central means of Ramaphosa’s strategic communication has been the hosting of summits. Summits bring together various stakeholders to engage in diverse matters of interest. They are places where opportunities are discussed and where consensus can emerge dynamically. These are platforms to gather participants to engage with specific issues, share resources, and form compacts. At the inaugural South Africa Investment Conference in October 2018, Ramaphosa secured the first USD20 billion tranche of his projected USD100 billion in new investments.

He also hosted a Jobs Summit: ‘to align the efforts of every sector and every stakeholder behind the imperative of job creation…[and] to come up with practical solutions and initiatives (Ramaphosa, 2018a).’ In 2019, Ramaphosa hosted the 1st South African Digital Economy Summit, addressing the opportunities provided by advanced technologies and the challenges of digital disruption. Both there and at the Presidential Health Summit, Ramaphosa asserted the need for establishing both a digital compact (Ramaphosa, 2019h) and a health compact (Ramaphosa, 2019i) with the people of South Africa.

Ramaphosa’s dynamic approach to renewal can be seen in his government’s ongoing review of the National Development Plan — since it was adopted in 2012 not much of South Africa’s detailed long-term guide to prosperity has been implemented. The plan is currently being reviewed to offer clearer, more up-to-date policy guidelines. Here again, Ramaphosa has appealed for cooperation: ‘We want to work with you, and for you to challenge us, to bring added rigour to the work of government [...] this is a government that is not afraid of new ideas, and of new ways of thinking’ (ANA reporter, 2019). In showing that the government recognises its failures and by appealing to the public for participation, Ramaphosa uses the opportunity provided by the revision of the National Development Plan, not only as a signal of departure from the past, but also as a tactical approach to renewal.

By restructuring the architecture of government, the new ANC is providing people and businesses with opportunities to take action. Some initial examples include the reduction of port and rail tariffs and the implementation of spatial interventions such as special economic zones. These ventures appeal to citizens’ ambitions and duties. These new policies represent the government’s first steps toward upholding its end of the promised social compact and an invitation to members of the public to engage in the business of renewing the state. Given the state’s level of depletion, these policy tools are structured to induce members of the public to employ their creativity and their assets in rebuilding the state. While it is too early to conclude whether it will be successful, the extent of Ramaphosa’s strategy demonstrates the desperation both he and his government feel.


Ramaphosa’s precarious leading of both a party in turmoil and a captured state requires communication that is clear and targeted. To avoid being drawn into political battles, he first aligns himself with the values of the state. By crafting his message in service of the national interest, he puts the building blocks of the state into place. Ramaphosa uses strategic communication to transcend Zuma’s legacy. He claims his leadership in the name of advancing the national project. He builds his strategic narrative around the values of the state, personifying the ideals of consensus and compromise.

Ramaphosa’s embodiment of the national Constitution is a strategic approach to advancing ideals conducive to restoring order and to building a stable and capable state while countering radicalism. This alignment to the highest standard of legitimacy is strategic. It confounds his opposition. Yet, it is an indirect and therefore precarious approach that can fail if not adopted by the government and the citizenry. This failure will have a direct and devastating impact on policy implementation.

Ramaphosa’s focus on ethos is a clear return to the era of Nelson Mandela. He thereby transcends the troubles of the recent past to remind the public of the early years of democracy when civic responsibility was strong. He employs the image of Mandela as the symbol of a nation reconciled. Mandela conceived South Africa’s national values by crafting the nation in word. Ramaphosa’s use of slogans such as the ‘New Dawn’ and ‘Thuma Mina’, harkens back to the moment South Africa changed its destiny, a time of overcoming hardship and of national purpose.

Ramaphosa’s communication is a call to action. He uses the means at his disposal to construct a seductive, forward-looking story of a united and prosperous nation. His leadership is not simply laying down a plan of action. Instead, it is the embodiment of a vision that calls the people to action. It is a campaign to stimulate and persuade citizens to support his mission, to forge a collective will towards achieving the national ends.

It is too early to tell whether Ramaphosa’s ethos-driven strategic communication, aimed at a long-term vision, has persuaded the nation. This vision is used as a means of restoring order and stimulating the public to endorse his pragmatic short-term efforts. Ramaphosa’s active drive for securing investments and restoring the confidence of the people shows that his dream is not merely a pipe dream. Instead, he uses his visionary approach strategically to engage stakeholders and elicit tangible commitments. His hands-on approach, not as a philosopher-king but a summit king, shows a concerted effort to drive his vision through pragmatic action.

Ramaphosa’s leadership provides insight into a theory of domestic strategic communication that is useful in our hyper-mediated world. The increasingly diffuse nature of power in the 21st century requires leaders to use communication holistically to shape national realities and to deter adversarial foreign information campaigns. Domestic strategic communication expresses a leader’s national ideas and ideals; the national ethos is communicated through leadership style.

Ramaphosa embodies national values and norms to persuade the nation, demonstrating his approach towards reaching his ends. His leadership does not impose but stimulates an ideal; the nation is constituted and territorialised in word. Ramaphosa uses domestic strategic communication to persuade his audience to trust his message and to identify with it. If he communicates successfully, the people will adopt their leader’s version of affairs, and their agency can be applied to realising the goals of the nation; the citizens are to be empowered and emboldened to adopt civic responsibility, and Ramaphosa will lead by doing.

To achieve its end, strategic communication is used to cohere and guide the nation, pursuing a set of values and goals that is organic to the state and its cause. This approach will be critical as citizens of states around the world increasingly adopt a variety of identities, while facing foreign information campaigns. Strategic communication inspires the people to adopt the nation’s ends as their own. Ramaphosa’s approach has been illustrative.


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[1] Kairos is the Greek word that refers to the quality of time; an opportune time for action. [2] Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name. [3] The 2019 South African General Election was held on 8 May 2019. The African National Congress, led by Cyril Ramaphosa won 57.5% of the vote. Ramaphosa was elected by the National Assembly two weeks later. [4] In an appeal to national unity, Ramaphosa shut down the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters’ call to drop a part of the Apartheid era Anthem from the compounded Anthem of the new South Africa.

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This article has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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