Rolling blackouts cast shadow over Sona debate

The State of the Nation debate continues on Wednesday. With President Ramaphosa responding to MPs on Thursday. (David Harrison/M&G)

The State of the Nation debate continues on Wednesday. With President Ramaphosa responding to MPs on Thursday. (David Harrison/M&G)

The debate on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) has unsurprisingly been overshadowed by opposition MPs attacking government and Eskom over load-shedding.

Parts of the country have been without electricity for hours after Eskom announced on Monday that South Africans should expect power cuts this week.

This comes mere days after Ramaphosa announced, during his address to the nation, that a plan is being developed to help save the ailing power utility.

While opposition parties focused on the power cuts, ANC legislators stuck shining a spotlight on the positive aspects of Ramaphosa’s speech and his government’s performance over the last 12 months.

Usually, parties put forward a mix of party whips and backbenchers to debate the president’s speech.
But with this debate being the last before the May 8 national elections, only the best and brightest were sent to the podium.

The ANC put forward five ministers, a deputy minister and the party’s chief whip among others to defend the president’s program.

ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu said the crisis at Eskom is a cause for concern, but remained confident in Ramaphosa’s plans for the parastatal bringing about a turnaround.

“We are nonetheless hopeful that our government will act swiftly to arrest this situation, especially the current episodes of load shedding,” Mthembu said.

The president announced on Thursday the unbundling of Eskom into three separate entities — generation, transmission, and distribution. According to Ramaphosa, this is to help bring the utility out of of financial doldrums and stabilise the electricity grid. The Democratic Alliance (DA) put forward a similar policy proposal last year.

In his response to the Ramaphosa’s refrain of “watch this space” during his Sona, DA leader Mmusi Maimane asserted that South Africans do not want promises for the future, but want the lights kept on now.

“You have been watching this space as Eskom fell apart, threatening to plunge our country into a crisis we may never recover from,” Maimaine said.

Maimane further hinted at a looming battle against Ramaphosa and ANC-aligned Cosatu over possible job cuts at the beleaguered state-owned entity.

“And so I’m sure you’d love to unbundle Eskom, as you should have done 10 years ago, but your ANC-aligned unions won’t allow this,” the opposition leader said.

Maimane dismissed the speech as empty promises, especially when it comes to fighting corruption.

“The ANC will let people like Angelo Agrizzi and his Bosasa colleagues take the fall, but they won’t allow people like Dudu Myeni and the Honourable Nomvula Mokonyane to be arrested. And if you cannot even remove the corrupt from your own cabinet, or from these Bosasa benches, then how can we believe anything you say about cleaning up government?” he said.

Ramaphosa was not spared questions about donations made by Bosasa to Ramaphosa’s ANC presidential election campaign. The company has also been the subject of allegations of graft and malfeasance concerning government tenders it was awarded.

“Everyone got a new car. Everyone got deals for their family members – tenders, shares and positions on boards. Even you and your own son benefited from Bosasa,” Maimane said.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema told Ramaphosa his party will not allow Eskom to be unbundled and will join workers to protest any job losses.

“There’s no ideological justification you can give on why you want to unbundle Eskom…Let us deal with Eskom’s problems honestly because attempts to privatise it will never be accepted. If you are not going to reassurance that you will re look at this Eskom matter we will go to the picket lines and defend this strategic asset of our people.”

Malema pulled no punches, alleging that Ramaphosa’s family stands to gain from any Eskom restructuring.

“You and your immediate (family) stand to benefit including your companies because you are still an active businessperson who took leave to come irritate us here.”

Malema also scoffed at Ramaphosa’s promises to fight corruption.

“I will never believe you until you fire [Environmental Affairs Minister] Nomvula [Mokonyane]... You cannot have the people, highly implicated [in state capture allegations] in your cabinet. And then you come and tell us you are committed to fight corruption. Unless you too have benefited from frozen chicken,” the EFF leader charged.

Malema was referring to testimony by former Bosasa chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi before the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture that one tonne of chicken on invoices was code for a R1-million bribe.

Veteran MP and outgoing IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi was slightly more conciliatory in tone but asked how Ramaphosa would pay for his bold plans.

“Yours was a refreshing approach. Instead of telling us what a great job your government is doing, you told us what a great job it is going to do. The intentions you expressed cannot be faulted. But if you are already borrowing money to stay afloat, where would the money come from to do all these things,” the nonagenarian MP said.

On the ANC’s election prospects, minister in the presidency Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was adamant her party will return to the National Assembly after elections as the majority party.

“We are going to win because we are very honest. We will tell our people what we have achieved. We will tell our people where we have have gone wrong. And we will tell our people what we are going to do,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

This raised howls from opposition MPs,and applause from ANC backbenchers. 

The ANC’s election strategy in recent times has been to acknowledge the faults made under the last nine years of former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure. With a promise of change and accountability under a Ramaphosa government after upcoming polls.

Heckles were also not in short supply.

During Jackson Mthembu’s speech, the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s loudly announced that the ANC is “crook dominated”, as Mthembu took shots at the EFF’s conduct in and out of the National Assembly chamber.

Ndlozi raised a point of order when Mthembu mentioned assault charges laid against EFF MP Marshall Dlamini for slapping a Parliamentary police officer after last week’s Sona, and EFF’s Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu who allegedly roughed up a journalist last year.

Ndlozi said the matter is sub-judice and according to National Assembly rules could not be discussed in the house.

But the DA’s John Steenhuisen — referencing recent reports and his own admission that he has no tertiary qualification — rose to bring the EFF into order.

“Madam Speaker, I may not have a matric, but even I know know that this is a joint sitting of parliament, so we’re using the joint rules today,” Steenhuisen laughingly countered.

The State of the Nation debate continues on Wednesday and President Ramaphosa is expected to respond to MPs on Thursday. 

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