Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SOWETAN
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SOWETAN

AFRICAN National Congress (ANC) deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa had a thin time of it in Limpopo at the weekend, talking at a meeting and going door to door as part of the party’s election campaign.

The ANC has not only had to deny that Ramaphosa was made to feel unwelcome, as City Press reported, but that he also did not mean to insult Afrikaners, or whites, when he said the b-word in Seshego, hometown of Economic Freedom Fighters boss Julius Malema.

According to a report in The Star, Ramaphosa effectively warned that the ANC was the only thing keeping the bad old days from coming back, in an answer to a resident who blamed poor service delivery in the area on the ruling party’s incompetence.

"If all South Africans don’t vote, we will regress. The boers will come back to control us," Ramaphosa reportedly said.

The report has caused a furore, with political parties like the Democratic Alliance (DA) accusing Ramaphosa of backwardness and the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) saying he’s racist.

"Apart from the fact that such a statement is not based on any real facts, it is also racist and polarising," FF+ boss Pieter Mulder said. "It is clear from this how deep in trouble the ANC is with its impatient voters. Because Mr Ramaphosa is second in charge of the ANC, these remarks cannot be lightly dismissed."

Indeed, most rebukes have taken the statement at its most basic level — the game-park-owning, buffalo-farming Ramaphosa meant whites, or white farmers. In his apology, he acknowledged the offence and let it lie at that.

"It is unfortunate that my comments offended some people. They were never intended to be derogatory," he said in a statement.

"In my conversation with a Seshego resident, I warned of the danger of the country going backwards, and used a term that has commonly been used by black South Africans to refer to the erstwhile apartheid regime. It is a term that continues to be understood in that way.

"My comments were not meant to refer to a particular section of our population, and it is unfortunate if such an impression was created."

But we know better than that. In the defence of Malema, back when he was the leader of the ANC Youth League and singing that infamous song, ANC people testified that the word "bhunu", or "boer", carried a different connotation to people within the struggle.

Speaking in court, Malema’s lawyer, Vincent Maleka, said that media translations had distorted the original meaning. It didn’t actually refer to one specific person, but rather to a political system.

But I don’t think this is the full extent of the problems with Ramaphosa’s statement. According to the original report, the "unemployed, single mother-of-three blamed the high unemployment rate on the ANC and said she had lost hope in the party". Notice the complete disregard for the primary concern of the citizen: terrible local government. This person didn’t need to hear that not voting would bring apartheid back, but rather how the sitting government would work to improve her life.

Ramaphosa could have said: "Don’t worry about it, don’t think, just vote for me."

Of deep concern is the unsubtle hint that the only thing preventing the past from returning is the ANC. I’m less tempted to think this was a dig at the DA (in rural Limpopo?) and more of a lack of appreciation for the struggle as it was fought outside of ANC spheres of control. Thabo Mbeki was guilty of this in his time as president, but it was President Jacob Zuma who took it to the next level. He has overblown the role of the armed struggle on many occasions, to the point of suggesting it was their guerrilla fighters that made 1994 happen.

It’s not an unimportant distortion of history. The view that the ANC was our only saviour, and thus remains the only thing holding apartheid back, denies ordinary people agency as their own emancipators. It suggests the oppressed people sat by, waiting for the party to lead it to the promised land.

It is almost as if Ramaphosa did not have a front-row seat to observe the birth of powerful black trade unions, the United Democratic Front and other people’s movements that sprang up in the 1980s.