As President Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to deliver the state of the nation address (Sona) on Thursday night, he faces an unenviable task — reconciling his government’s past promises with harsh realities. Load-shedding has left South Africans negotiating a path between gridlocked roads and candlelit homes. Meanwhile, students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are fighting for better access to education, while the residents of QwaQwa in the Free State continue to go without water.
His speech will be delivered under the theme: “Following up on our commitments: making your future work better”.
Much of South Africa’s future depends, however, on getting Eskom to work better. Ramaphosa is unable to offer a glowing review of Eskom. At best, he can say that the new chief executive, André de Ruyter, has a plan. Neither can he offer good tidings about SAA. Or any state-owned enterprise (SOE), really.
In previous state of the nation speeches, he made several commitments about how these SOEs would be turned around, but there has been little or no change at these enterprises: some of them continue to bleed money or survive on bailouts.
And Ramaphosa has made promises before.
In his address in February 2019, Ramaphosa spoke about taking “decisive measures to improve governance, strengthen leadership and restore stability in strategic entities”.
He also spoke of the appointment of “credible” boards and “appropriately experienced and ethical directors” at SOEs such as Eskom, Denel, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), Transnet and SA Express.
But there’s little to show for all this.
In May 2019 Phakamani Hadebe resigned as Eskom’s chief executive. Earlier this year, Jabu Mabuza also resigned as the chairperson of the power utility’s board after failing to keep his promise to Rampahosa to ensure the lights stayed on through the festive season. It is impossible to envision a more prosperous South Africa without Eskom being knocked into better shape.
But wait, there’s more.
In December Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula fired the Prasa board, as well as its interim chief executive, Nkosinathi Sishi. The entity is now being run by an administrator. Trains that ferry thousands of poor people in South Africa continue to be late, as do the buses run by state-owned bus company, Autopax, which has no money to pay salaries. This is another example of the wilful abdication of the duty of care the government has to its people.
The mismanagement of state-owned enterprises has endangered the livelihoods of thousands of South Africans and, by extension, the security of countless more dependents.
The high court in Johannesburg recently ruled that SA Express must be put under business rescue. This, at a time when SAA is already under business rescue and has recently announced that it will be cutting several routes — a decision that will likely see many workers losing their jobs.
In his address in February last year, Ramaphosa said: “We want our SOEs to be fully self-sufficient and be able to fulfil their development and economic role.”
He further spoke about the “crisis” at Eskom and how it had the potential to damage the economic and social development ambitions of the country.
“We need to take bold decisions and decisive action … The consequences may be painful, but they will be even more devastating if we delay,” he said.
In his June state of the nation address Ramaphosa acknowledged that the uncertainty in the supply of electricity was affecting the economic performance of the country.
He further said: “The lesson is clear: for growth, we need a reliable and sustainable supply of electricity.”
The intention is sound. But the reality is still distant.
The only “bold decisions” we can count on is the common sense indication that power stations will be taken off the grid to ensure much-needed maintenance.
The darkness has been dark and citizens are told this is likely to go on for months. But the energy crisis also masks one of the government’s other great failures — building a culture of trust with citizens.
In both his addresses last year Ramaphosa also spoke about the non-payment of money owed to the power utility.
“As a country, we must assert the principle that those who use electricity must pay for it. Failure to pay endangers our entire electricity supply, our economy and our efforts to create jobs. The days of boycotting payment are over. This is now the time to build, it is the time for all of us to make our own contribution,” he said.
But it is well known, accepted even, that most residents in Soweto do not pay for electricity. In fact, even if Eskom does cut them off the grid they reconnect themselves without consequence. The stalemate between Eskom and Soweto residents shows up the tragedy of South Africa today — too many people flouting the rule of law with abandon.
Soweto owes the power utility more than R1-billion. And they are not alone, with a host of municipalities accruing tens of billions in debt with Eskom.
But it is the other mainstay of life, and a core function of a capable state — the delivery of clean drinking water, that continues to evade too many South Africans.
In February Ramaphosa acknowledged that South Africa is a water-scarce country and that many parts of the country were facing a water crisis.
“We are developing a comprehensive integrated nation plan that addresses water shortages, ageing infrastructure and poor project implementation,” he said.
And as Ramaphosa addresses the nation anew, learners in QwaQwa have been to school for just seven days of the 2020 academic year. The community continues its protests for water. But little changes.
The water crisis in QwaQwa has been ongoing since 2016. Taps ran dry in October last year. Now communities rely on municipal Jojo tanks to deliver water but even those are not reliable. A child drowned while fetching water from the river just a few weeks ago. So, as Ramaphosa talks about the water crisis again in this state of the nation, he must remember the people of QwaQwa and their plight.
But he must somehow find a way to do so that is not merely a performance for the cameras. Somehow, he has to make it sound sincere. The only way to do that is to take action.