By Linda Bordoni
South African bishops have welcomed the appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa as President of the nation and his State Of the Nation Address (SONA) saying that "the setting out of a generous and enlightened national plan represents the first step in a new course for the country" and that they now look to implementation with hopeful optimism.
In a statement, the bishops said that “The State President’s speech showed awareness of the many areas of national life which need investment and nourishment” and they added “We are happy that more lands will be distributed and made available to our people”.
Land redistribution to redress a grave historical injustice
They were referring in that passage to Ramaphosa’s promise to accelerate a land redistribution programme “not only to redress a grave historical injustice, but also to bring more producers into the agricultural sector and to make more land available for cultivation.”
“This approach, Ramaphosa said, will include the expropriation of land without compensation.”
Just days after that speech, a motion by South Africa’s radical opposition party - the Economic Freedom Fighters - on land reform and on the expropriation of land without compensation was passed by the country’s parliament triggering alarm among some citizens and potential investors.
President promises land reform will not undermine the economy
Ramaphosa has issued reassuring statements saying that ANC plans for land reform will not undermine the economy or threaten food security.
Promising lawmakers that “there will be no smash and grab of land” he said the proposal to expropriate land without paying for it will be done responsibly and farming must continue as normal.
The possibility of expropriating land without compensation would call for a change to Section 25 of the Constitution, and the Constitution review committee has been tasked by parliament to review the Constitution and report back to it by August 30.
Meanwhile Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist, freedom fighter, and trade union leader is also a businessman and is committed to favouring the growth of the economy to address poverty.
So, as Rustenberg Bishop Kevin Dowling told Linda Bordoni, the Catholic Bishops of South Africa are expressing cautious but hopeful optimism for this moment of transition and have asked the new President for a meeting to talk about their role as Church:
Describing the present one as a moment of positive transition, Bishop Kevin Dowling said that in his SONA Ramaphosa struck a new chord which “is very different to what we have been hearing for years; calling for a new start, and asking everybody to be on board”.
Of course, Dowling said, he is moving forward carefully “because this is politics and he hasn’t got 100% support, even within his own Party”.
“I think he’s struck a chord with just about the whole range of people in South Africa, and there is a new feeling of hope that things can be different, that the word ‘partnership between government and all sectors of society’ might not just be a useless phrase”.
Calling on all South Africans to transform the country
Dowling pointed out that the President has already made some interesting appointments to his cabinet, but he has also been criticized for not having got rid of some people who were alleged to have been involved in corruption and state capture.
Ramaphosa, the Bishop said, is “a very personable man: he’s been running on the beach and meeting people; he has a wide expertise in all the languages (there are 11 official languages of South Africa), so he can communicate with ordinary folk on the ground in their own languages which is a tremendous strength for him”.
He noted that the new leader has a strong background in business, and said that the vexed mining Charter which has caused so much backlash and lack of investment from the big companies will hopefully be reformed and investments will start again.
“I think most people are cautiously hopeful” he said and he expressed his personal hope that he will also be open to meeting the major sectors of civil society.
Catholic Bishops have asked for meeting with President
“We as the bishops, at our plenary session in January, asked for a meeting with him. We want to meet with him to dialogue about our role as Church, and what we can contribute to the transformation of the country” he said.
Commenting on the fact that Ramaphosa is a leader South Africa hasn’t seen in a long while, Dowling recalled his long history as public figure in South Africa.
Ramaphosa and the mining sector
Cyril Ramaphosa played a major role in South Africa’s pivotal mining sector establishing the National Union of Mine-workers and fighting for the transformation of labour relations in the mining industry under the apartheid government, all of which were key in bringing about the political change that led to the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of democracy.
Dowling, who is the bishop of Rustenberg, home to the biggest platinum mines in the world, noted that in his SONA Ramaphosa addressed head-on crucial economic and social issues pertaining to the mining reality.
“He said there has to be real restitution and he called for a conversion of attitudes and a response to the suffering” he said.
Interestingly, Dowling continued, when referring to the 2012 Marikana massacre, he used the number of 44 who were killed – while normally there is just a focus on the 34 who were shot by the police – but that was preceded a few days earlier by horrendous massacres of 10 people that contributed to the anger and resort to violence that ensued.
Dowling noted that Ramaphosa was implicated in that terrible chapter of South African history because he was on LONMIN’s Board and said “the words he used there had a spiritual content that pleased me: he wants to reach out and restore broken people and broken relationships”
He said he is clearly reaching out to all the sectors – the Unions and the mining companies – and that, he added, is going to be critical because the economic climate has been so bad with massive retrenchments which cause even greater poverty and unhappy Unions.
“So we need a real influx of investment so the mines can resurrect themselves” he said.
Dowling concluded noting that as in many other sectors in South Africa, the mining community is at a junction and he expressed hope for the President’s call to bring everyone together to dialogue about a new Mining Charter: that could really bring us forward in this crucial debate”.