President pulls out all the stops

Leading the way: President Cyril Ramaphosa won applause at various moments of his State of the Nation address. (David Harrison)

Leading the way: President Cyril Ramaphosa won applause at various moments of his State of the Nation address. (David Harrison)

ECONOMY

Thuma Mina II

Many of us may not feel particularly upbeat given moribund economic growth and the seemingly endless public parade of corruption and malfeasance that dominates public life, but Ramaphosa seemed undaunted as he launched into an upbeat State of the Nation address.

There was not much to fault in the long list of plans, programmes and intentions that he laid out for almost two hours.

Except, since all of these depend on us having a viable energy supply, he could have dealt with the Eskom issue at or near the beginning of his speech. As it was, he was more than halfway through his speech when the elephant in the room was addressed.

“Security of energy supply is an absolute imperative. Eskom is in crisis and the risks it poses to South Africa are great,” a relaxed Ramaphosa said.
“It could severely damage our economic and social development ambitions.”

He then outlined the basis of a plan of some tariff increases, coupled with a drive to break the culture of nonpayment in some municipalities coupled with some fiscal support — without burdening the fiscus with unmanageable debt — to be identified by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in the forthcoming Budget.

Ramaphosa also indicated that some asset sales could be considered.

“As we address the challenges that face Eskom, we also need to safeguard our national fiscal framework, achieve a positive impact on our sovereign credit rating, and pay attention to the rights and obligations of Eskom’s funders,” he said.

As expected, the utility would be developing a new business model to separate its three main activities — generation, transmission and distribution.

For the rest, Ramaphosa ticked many boxes, including establishing a world-class e-visa system, auctioning radio spectrum, putting in new laws to deconcentrate the economy, developing incubators, promoting entrepreneurship and small business, cutting red tape and improving ethical standards within government. Who knows what an honest prosecuting authority can achieve?

There is much to applaud and celebrate, given what Ramaphosa inherited but a year ago. But what is missing is how political parties, especially this ruling party, can reform themselves to be able to discipline their members, no matter how senior, who have been found to be in the cross-hairs of corruption. — Kevin Davie

ENVIRONMENT

A lot of hot air

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech continued a government tradition of missing the point on climate change. He gave it the mandatory one line: “The devastating effects of global warming on our climate are already being felt, with extreme weather conditions damaging livelihoods, communities and economies”, which came in the middle of a section about how technology is changing the world.

South Africa has, to its credit, been good at accepting the reality of a warming world. This means many treaties signed — but little action. Little recognition of something that, in the state’s own words, will reverse all the progress made to meet the millennium and sustainable development goals.

Instead, the president’s focus was on short-term fixes to wider environmental issues. Pointing to the army’s intervention in the Vaal River system’s sewerage crisis, he said this would be a template to “call on the capabilities of the state and the private sector to address infrastructure challenges”.

In the water sector — the water department’s numbers show that about 20-million people don’t have regular clean water — this will take the form of “an inter-governmental rapid response technical team, reinforced with specialists”.

Teams like this aren’t new. It achieves impressive immediate results, but things return to their putrid state shortly afterwards. That’s because it ignores the real problems behind South Africa’s water crisis — corruption and mismanagement.

But, when it comes to the environment, this wasn’t a speech about learning from the past. Ramaphosa said he was “extremely encouraged” by the news before his speech that oil and gas company Total had made a big discovery about 175km off the coast of Mossel Bay.

“This could well be a game-changer for our country and will have significant consequences for our country’s energy security and the development of this industry.”

This is how government has historically talked about mining — a saviour sector that will be given special privileges so that it can give the economy a bump.

Ramaphosa did not acknowledge that burning more fossil fuels is precisely what is causing the “devastating effects of global warming” that he so briefly alluded to. Sipho Kings

FOREIGN POLICY

What foreign policy?

South Africans are often criticised for being isolated and parochial by the rest of the continent. Ramaphosa certainly endorsed that reputation on Thursday, with just a single line on South Africa’s foreign policy in his 8 000-word speech.

Referring to the country’s recent election to a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, he said: “We will use this position to advance peace on the continent and across the globe, taking forward Nelson Mandela’s vision of a peaceful, stable and just world.”

There was no mention of how South Africa would respond to the economic crisis and political unrest in Zimbabwe; how we would mediate tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo; how we would position ourselves in a world where international norms are under threat as never before. South Africa, according to this speech, is an island.

In this respect, Ramaphosa differs little from his predecessor. The rest of the world only featured when it came to trade, in terms of what economic benefits other countries could bring to South Africa. The African Continental Free Trade Area, which Parliament ratified late last year, “offers great opportunities to place South Africa on a path of investment-led trade, and to work with other African countries to develop their own industrial capacity”.

South Africa’s tourism industry, meanwhile, will target “the largest and fastest growing markets of India and China, as well as strong markets on our continent”, in an effort to attract 21-million tourists annually by 2030.

Mandela’s ANC envisaged that South Africa would play a leading role on the world stage, emphasising the principles of democracy and human rights. In 2019, the president, from the same party, no longer bothers with those ideals — at least not in this speech. — Simon Allison

EDUCATION

Learning deficit

Although Ramaphosa acknowledged the protests taking place on some university campuses, which led to a death of a student in Durban, he failed to say how the issues being raised will be addressed. Instead, he delegated the task.

“We call on student representatives and university authorities to work together to find solutions to the challenge that students are facing.”

But these two parties seem to be failing to find each other. Students continue to protest about inadequate accommodation, historical debts hindering them from continuing their studies and failures by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to disburse funds.

Ramaphosa did say NSFAS will receive priority in the “coming years” so that it is better able to disburse funds to eligible students.

He also spoke about free higher education for qualifying first-year students, which was introduced by former president Jacob Zuma in 2017. The scheme will be phased in over five years until all undergraduate students who qualify can benefit.

But, this does not answer the cries of those students who are already in the system and unable to pay for their studies and registration fees, and who face being financially excluded by higher education institutions.

In short, his speech failed to provide solutions to urgent education problems. Without good education, the future he envisions will be hard to attain. — Bongekile Macupe

ESKOM

Take the pain

One of Ramaphosa’s big announcements was that troubled Eskom will be broken into three divisions and will receive government support to help to stabilise its balance sheet. More details would be provided in the budget speech in two weeks’ time.

He put to bed concerns that unbundling Eskom would result in the sale of parts of it. He said the government would never support the sale of strategic assets. But the core competencies — generation, transmission and distribution — would stand on their own under the umbrella of Eskom Holdings.

He did not mince his words about the state of the utility. He said it was in crisis and required urgent steps to turn its fortunes around.

“It could severely damage our economic and social development ambitions. We need to take bold decisions and decisive action. The consequences may be painful but they will be even more devastating if we delay.”

Part of the pain would include approaching labour about this “just transition”, not only about the unbundling, but also about what reducing costs would entail.

For the consumer, he said there would be “an affordable” tariff increase, but he was critical about municipal debt, which had spiralled to R17-billion by November. Eskom’s own exposure to lenders was more than R400-billion and it had asked the government to take over R100-billion of this.

“We need to take steps to reduce municipal nonpayment and confront the culture of nonpayment that exists in some communities. It is imperative that all those who use electricity, over and above the free basic electricity provided, should pay for it.”

More broadly, Ramaphosa said the government would create a state-owned enterprise company to take a harder look at the state-owned enterprises. — Sabelo Skiti

GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE

Fighting talk

Ramaphosa dedicated a significant tract of his address to gender-based violence.

Ending it “is an urgent national priority that requires the mobilisation of all South Africans and the involvement of all institutions”, he said.

At the inaugural presidential Gender-based Violence Summit in November last year, Ramaphosa announced that the country would launch a national strategic plan to crisis.

“During the course of the past year as the presidency, we have paid particular attention to the violence and abuse perpetrated against women and children in our society,” he said.

Thousands of women took to the streets in August’s #TheTotalShutdown march to get the attention of the president, whose response was to call the summit.

The president’s promises on addressing gender-based violence were seemingly guided by the outcomes of the summit, which was criticised by some for failing to address the plight of working-class women.

Ramaphosa repeated his previous undertaking to dedicate more funds to support facilities such as Thuthuzela Care Centres and Khuseleka Care Centres. Government will also work to ensure the better functioning of sexual offences courts, Ramaphosa said.

At the summit last year, Ramaphosa said government would not rest until the eradication of gender-based violence was achieved. The allocation of funds to achieving this is promising but the president’s speech on Thursday reflected a slow start to addressing this urgent challenge. — Sarah Smit

LAW AND ORDER

Sting in the tail

The president’s announcement that there will soon be an investigating unit to deal with serious corruption, housed in the office of the newly appointed prosecutions head Shamila Batohi and reporting directly to her, is a good sign. It indicates a will to address what is coming out of the state capture commission and the other commissions and inquiries.

Most significant is that the directorate will have both an investigative and prosecutorial capacity, seemingly along the same lines as the Scorpions, whose disbandment was widely viewed as a huge step backwards in the fight against crime.

The success of the Scorpions has often been attributed to the fact that the unit was made up of both investigators and prosecutors. The idea to revive the unit was first mooted by Batohi herself in her public interview for the job.

Ramaphosa said the directorate would also bring in capacity from the private sector.

He is also tackling intelligence, saying he would take “a number of urgent steps” to reconstitute a “professional national intelligence capability”. These include re-establishing the National Security Council and going back to two arms in the intelligence service — one focusing on domestic and one on foreign intelligence. The merger of the intelligence services happened a few months after Zuma became president in 2009.

When announcing the changes, Ramaphosa veered off script to say the reconstitution was directed at an intelligence function whose job was to “defend and protect the people of South Africa and not any party political official”, obliquely addressing the criticism that South Africa’s intelligence structures had been sidetracked from their real jobs.

He said, although the Zondo commission and others would “in time make findings and recommendations in line with their mandates, evidence of criminal activity that emerges must be evaluated by the criminal justice system”.

If there was reason to prosecute, “prosecutions must follow swiftly”, he said, implying that there would be no waiting for the commission to end before the criminal justice system could begin its work. — Franny Rabkin

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