It will be remembered as the night the sitting of both houses of Parliament was suspended. But President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), when it was eventually delivered, struck all the right notes. On several occasions, he was contrite, acknowledging his government’s failures. “There are times when we have fallen short, there are times when we have made mistakes, but we remain unwavering in our determination to build a society that is free and equal and at peace,” he said.
But for much of his speech, the president spoke largely of tangible actions that were being undertaken to address the harsh realities confronting the country.
Ramaphosa spoke about the “social compact” that was required to achieve the aim of this year’s Sona — inclusive growth.
“We can succumb to the many and difficult and protracted problems that confront us, or we can confront them, with resolve and determination and with action.”
In an apparent response to critics of the slow pace of economic reform under his leadership and a lack of action against those involved in state capture, Ramaphosa said the desire to consult was a strength, and not a weakness.
Ramaphosa said the fight against corruption and to clean up government and its state-owned entities would continue, committing the support of his administration to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.
The report of the commission of inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) would, he said, be made public within the next couple of days, as would a plan of action to address its findings and recommendations.
However, Ramaphosa gave no indication that the criminal justice system would pick up its pace in bringing the perpetrators of state capture before the courts.
As part of the government’s efforts to tackle the scourge of gender-based violence, Ramaphosa announced that there will be changes to the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual Offences Act.
During a parliamentary briefing on an interdepartmental report on the implementation of criminal law in November, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery said both pieces of legislation were in the process of being reviewed. But, he said, “the problem lay more with the implementation of legislation, rather than new legislation”.
“There were areas that could be tightened, but there was no magic switch to end gender-based violence and sexual offences,” Jeffery said.
On Thursday night Ramaphosa said the Domestic Violence Act would be amended to “better protect victims”. Although the Act itself is considered progressive, its implementation has been undermined by the lack of help offered to victims to obtain protection orders against their abusers.
Ramaphosa also said changes to the Sexual Offences Act will broaden the categories of sex offenders whose names must be included on the national register for sex offenders.
The overhauling of the register has been on the cards since the president addressed the nation in September, in the wake of a barrage of media reports about acts of femicide, including the rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana.
According to the interdepartmental report, a data-verification project on the register found that 32 570 entries had been verified, 24 912 entries were validated and 7 658 entries were being retested.
At the November briefing, Jeffery announced that the department would be bringing legislation that would mean any person convicted of a sexual offence would be added to the register.
Although the Sexual Offences Act contains broad definitions of what is considered a sexual offence, in its current form the Act provides only for people convicted of sexual offences against minors or a people with mental disabilities to be added to the register.
The land question
Turning to the expropriation of land without compensation, Ramaphosa restated his administration’s commitment to the passing of an Expropriation Bill that outlines the circumstances under which such expropriation would be permissible during this term.
He said the government would first release an additional 700 000 hectares of state land for land restitution claims, with priority being given to young people and women and those who have already been farming on communal land.
The emphasis on state land appears to be aimed at allaying fears of white farmers that their land would be the initial target for restitution, as does a stipulation that all future land claimants would be given training before being allocated land.
The concerns of the sugar and poultry industries about their ability to survive in the face of cheap imports also appear to have been taken into consideration by Ramaphosa, who announced that new tariffs to protect the local sugar industry would be implemented in the next few days. Tariffs would also be introduced to protect local poultry and steel producers in the coming months.
Ramaphosa announced that Ekurhuleni will get its own university of science and innovation. This will be the third new university to be built by the democratic government after the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley and the University of Mpumalanga, both of which were established in 2014.
He also announced the building of nine new TVET colleges in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. However, Ramaphosa makes this announcement as some of the 12 new colleges that were announced to be built in 2013 have not been completed.
And although the academic programme has been suspended indefinitely at the University of KwaZulu-Natal after protests by students about issues including funding and accommodation, Ramaphosa was mum about this in his speech. He, however, announced that R64-billion would be spent on student accommodation over the next 10 years.
On the day that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration announced that we have just lived through the hottest January in recorded history, the president continued to do little more than pay lip service to the climate crisis.
Last year he noted: “Together with all the nations of the world, we are confronted by the most devastating changes in global climate in human history.”
This year, he said the shift to renewable energy in South Africa is happening “at a time when humankind faces its greatest existential threat in the form of climate change”.
Ramaphosa did what he had to do, talking about his promise to “a young climate activist from Eersterivier” that “no African child is left behind in the transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient and sustainable society”. It would be difficult not to say something when young climate protesters are dominating so many global events.
If every other country in the world acted like South Africa, the world will heat by nearly 4°C by the end of this century. South Africa, and the rest of the continent — which the president is now responsible for with his assumption of the African Union leadership — will start to become hard to live on if it heats beyond 1.5°C.
Acknowledging this, an increasing number of countries are pledging to drop carbon emissions to zero between 2030 and 2050. Ramaphosa did not show such ambition. This is despite South Africa being the 12th-highest polluter of greenhouse gases in the world.
Instead, the president promised that the Climate Change Bill will be finalised, and the Presidential Commission on Climate Change “will ensure that as we move towards a low-carbon growth trajectory that we leave no one behind”.
It was yet another Sona in which the words about climate change acknowledged the crisis of a heating world, without showing any serious desire to tackle carbon emissions, or the effects of climate change.
The diplomats assembled in Cape Town for the president’s speech had to wait a very long time for any mention of South Africa’s foreign policy or its relations with the outside world — a reflection, perhaps, of where foreign policy ranks on the president’s agenda. When he did finally turn to the subject, Ramaphosa emphasised his role as chair of the AU, as well as South Africa’s membership of the United Nations Security Council. He pledged to prioritise the economic empowerment of African women during his time at the head of the AU.
Perhaps most significantly, he announced plans to host an extraordinary AU summit to discuss how to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, which came into force last year. “Here we will finalise the rules that define what is a ‘Made in Africa’ product, the tariff lines that will be reduced to zero over the next five years, and the services sectors that will be opened up across the continent,” said Ramaphosa. If he delivers on these promises, he will go a long way towards making free trade in Africa a reality — and ensure that South Africa is once again at the centre of Africa’s economic development.
Reporting by Bongekile Macupe, Paddy Harper, Athandiwe Saba, Franny Rabkin, Simon Allison, Sipho Kings and Sarah Smit