Before Cyril Ramaphosa, only four other men have stood before the National Assembly to take the temperature of this still very new nation: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.
All were ANC presidents and past deputies, but you cannot find a more different cast of characters or more contrasting legacies. Mandela was a grandfatherly elder statesman, who is remembered primarily as a conciliator and nation-builder rather than an administrator. Mbeki was a would-be technocrat whose obvious intellectual and leadership gifts were destined to be undermined by catastrophic personality flaws.
Motlanthe was a bridge of calm over troubled waters, blessed with the temperament and the assurance to take the mantle during our country’s first and most serious constitutional crisis, and with the moral courage to stand up to the destructive currents in his own party when the time came. He was followed by Zuma, possibly the most determined kleptocrat this country will ever see.
And then there is Ramaphosa, who as yet has had no time to distinguish himself with anything other than a song. But it did fall to Ramaphosa to present the very last State of the Nation address of the first 25 years of our democratic experiment. It is something akin to both privilege and curse.
A curse because at just one year he has had the shortest tenure of every one of the five men, apart from Motlanthe who served from September 25 2008 to May 9 2009, to have had the privilege. He also does it at the tail end of a period characterised by the deliberate and determined unravelling of everything that was good and hopeful about the South African democratic project.
To look back over the past 25 years is to appreciate just how difficult a task he will have in the next five, because that task involves not building his own unique legacy, but recovering and restoring what we thought we already had.
If Mandela’s legacy was the foundation and establishment of a new South African nationhood, and Mbeki’s the building of the institutional architecture of modern statehood, then Zuma’s was surely the dismantling of it all to impose a rapacious parallel state.
The extent to which he succeeded is clear in the proceedings of the Zondo inquiry into state capture, the Nugent inquiry into the South African Revenue Service, the Mokgoro inquiry into the National Prosecuting Authority, and a myriad other investigations over the past few years that have exposed the hollowing out of the state and the looting of its coffers.
To appreciate fully the difficulty of the job Ramaphosa faces, it is necessary to understand what it was that his predecessor played fast and loose with in the nine years between 2009 and 2018.
The ANC’s achievements have not been inconsiderable, particularly for the poor, which explains electoral victories that have never fallen below a 62% share of the vote in any national election. The achievements include:
- Nearly five million free houses have been built since 1994, housing more than 14-million people.
- Only 36% of the population and only 12% of people in rural areas had access to electricity in 1994. Today the figure is 84% across the board.
- Only 60% of South Africans had access to clean drinking water in 1994. Today, that figure has increased to 90%.
- Adult literacy stands at 94% today, up from 51% in 1994. The government still runs one of the most effective adult basic education regimes in the world.
- Among children of school age, attendance is near universal at 99%, up from just 51% in 1994. And whereas just half of all pupils who wrote the matric exam passed it in 1994, 78% passed in 2018.
- The prospects of those who pass matric are vastly improved. Today more than two million students are enrolled in university and other forms of higher education, up from fewer than 400 000 in 1994.
- Those who do enrol at universities and colleges have seen the state’s support increase from R70‑million 25 years ago to R15‑billion last year.
- In the area of health, universal and free primary health, as well as the world’s largest public-sector HIV treatment programme, has raised South Africans’ life expectancy from a dismal low of 52 to just under 65 today.
- The social security net has been expanded from three million to cover more than 17-million people today.
- It would not have been possible to preside over this massive expansion of the social wage without growing the economy, and the ANC can claim some credit there too.
South Africa’s economy has trebled in size since 1994, but the population has not grown at anything near that rate. So, per capita income has grown, meaning we are all richer on average than in 1994 (some more than others, of course; inequality is still our curse).
And although some in the official opposition tie themselves in knots about race and the definition of privilege, ANC policies have created a large and growing black middle class, changing the patterns of ownership and distribution in the economy (though not nearly enough) through black economic empowerment, employment equity and rights-based labour legislation.
That is good enough a record to run on, especially in a country like this, where the majority still do not take for granted the basic necessities and opportunities that opened up to them only in 1994.
That Ramaphosa cannot confidently rely on that record to get him and the ANC over the line on May 8 is very much a function of the “nine wasted years” he has taken so much flak for speaking about.
Look around you, at the chaos and the darkness, the creaking infrastructure that cannot be maintained for lack of funding. The ANC may have extended access to electricity to more than 80% of the population since 1994, but since 2014 we seemingly cannot all have that access at the same time.
The largest public service utility in the southern hemisphere is a mess. Eskom’s debt now stands at R420‑billion rand, representing a grave threat to the fiscus and the wider economy. The company is out of money, out of coal to burn for electricity and now out of time. Unless Ramaphosa’s already penniless government ponies up a significant portion of that cash with a proposed R100-billion debt swap — in addition to granting Eskom politically untenable price hikes — the company will be bankrupt by April.
And all of this — the blackouts, the financial hole, the brazen request to dip into our pockets — emerges just two months from a general election, and barely a week after Ramaphosa attempted to deliver a positive message in his State of the Nation address.
The man must thank his ancestors for a ridiculously weak opposition.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg research and strategy consultancy