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Sona: Politically effective but socially unacceptable

I thought that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address (Sona) was, politically speaking, very effective. I also thought that anyone reacting to the speech with unqualified excitement or without listing several critical caveats is naive to the point of being dangerously imprudent.

Let me first say in what sense I thought the speech was “very effective”.

The banal truth is that politics is about competition and, therefore, about relative performances, especially during an election cycle. To my mind, Ramaphosa projected authority, a sense of being in charge. He sounded and appeared presidential, was less dull than he often can be at the level of rhetoric (no mean achievement considering his speech ran close to 10 000 words in length), and, crucially, he neutralised the opposition with predictable charm, calm and good old toenadering (reconciliation).

The political question facing us is not whether Ramaphosa is the ideal president for the time we are living through — I would argue that he is not — but, rather, whether you would prefer, say, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) Julius Malema or the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane.

I think that, if they set aside party-political loyalties, many EFF and DA voters and supporters would concede that, although the ANC remains a serious obstacle to South Africa achieving its potential, Ramaphosa is more presidential than Malema and Maimane combined.

Ramaphosa, on Thursday, delivered a remarkable speech in the context of an incumbent government needing to convince voters to let it stay on. This is despite the economy growing at less than 1%, despite unemployment being about 40% — depending on your preferred measurement — especially among the youth, despite extreme poverty and despite an erosion of public trust in democratic institutions as a result of corruption that the ANC-led government failed to arrest.

Given all these realities about the true state of the state and of society, the president did the ANC an enormous favour with a solid political performance.

The DA was silenced. The EFF was left fuming, inventing assassination plots and picking fights outside the House, because spectacle politics inside Parliament was, this time around, a non-starter.

But I am afraid there is still too much unqualified excitement among some citizens in response to the president’s speech.

We are too easily seduced. We need a hero. We deserve one. We are desperate to reverse what has happened in our country — slowly at first, after democracy’s dawn (the arms deal) and then at an accelerated rate during the Noughties (state capture as we have come to understand it). We are so desperate that we hold on to hope to spur us on to work together.

But we must constrain the hope motif with fact-based analyses about the challenges that still lie ahead. There are several warnings to be taken seriously. I will restrict myself to just three.

First, Ramaphosa is not bigger than the ANC. Even if the ANC won with, say, 60% of the vote in its favour, it will take at least a decade before it is able to “renew” itself, rid itself of criminals and those who are taking up space instead of working faithfully in the positions they have been seconded to.

The factional battles inside the ANC and the criminals’ self-interest to hold on to their loot is stronger than Ramaphosa’s good intentions and all the efforts of the opposition parties combined.

We cannot analyse ANC politics without regard for the agentive powers of the warring factions still at loggerheads with each other. Do you think the likes of ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, Minister of Environmental Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane, former president Jacob Zuma, Deputy President David Mabuza and countless others in government and in the national executive committee will simply walk away?

The excessively optimistic among us assert — with no regard for recent ANC history — that the political legitimacy Ramaphosa would have in the state if he won by a big margin on May 8 will automatically strengthen his hand in the party.

Have we learned nothing about the ANC’s perpetual disregard for the state at large and for its insistence that the rest of us are of lesser importance than the unique happenings inside the party? Simply put: the ANC itself is one helluva hurdle to Ramaphosa’s vision and you trivialise this at your peril.

We are not voting for individuals. We vote for parties. The constitutional powers of the president do not allow us to make reliable predictions about what happens inside the party.

Second, although parts of the state and some civil servants do an honest day’s work, no item in Ramaphosa’s address can be guaranteed of seeing the light of day unless and until the entire state apparatus is fixed.

Ramaphosa is good at admitting these things. But he does so too quickly without articulating the nature and scope of the challenges. That enables his supporters to insist he is wonderfully honest. In fact, he is not because it is no easy task, for example, to get the basic education department to fix toilets, eradicate mud buildings, eliminate ghost teachers from the payroll and get children to read with comprehension and count properly. Yet suddenly we want to give a round of applause to the additional key performance indicators being given to the basic education minister. She cannot deliver on her existing ones. What makes you think, if tens of thousands of grade  1 children do not ever finish school, that introducing early childhood development will be a successful new phase of compulsory education?

If the brilliant Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi cannot get a few schools and a few communities to look after a few tablets, what makes you think Minister Angie Motshekga can deliver smart devices across the country, make sure they are secured and then train teachers to use these technologies as part of a new pedagogy that they did not experience themselves?

Nothing in the Sona demonstrated an urgency about the technocratic challenges this state still faces.

Whether we talk about this item or that item to be rolled out, it is all premised on a capable state. We do not have one. That is a red flag. Take it seriously.

I could have taken any number of examples besides education, such as the unbundling of Eskom. All these require capability that we have in short supply.

Third, the single biggest economic danger to our democratic foundations is deep levels of inequality. Inequality cannot be fixed with a little bit of investment. Job creation and growing the economy are necessary conditions for breaking the back of the inequality challenge in our society. But they are not sufficient.

I am still waiting for a political party to articulate a full appreciation of inequality’s nasty place next to low growth, joblessness and poverty. Inequality breeds a different and more violent kind of contempt among the indigent.

If we did everything Ramaphosa is hoping for, inequality would be somewhat reduced. But we need sharper and more direct focus on exclusion and inequality. This speech did not do so.

So, a politically effective speech it was but do not be blindly optimistic. Rational pessimism is not unpatriotic.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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