A Sona to reflect troubled times

NEWS ANALYSIS

Former president FW de Klerk sat stone-faced while the Economic Freedom Fighters demanded that he leave the House, calling him a murderer. Chewing on gum, he hunched forward in his seat while EFF members and speaker of Parliament Thandi Modise continued to argue about his presence.

While EFF leader Julius Malema was on the floor calling De Klerk a murderer, others shouted “What about you?”, while still others shouted “VBS”.

Modise appeared unflappable. She was firm. And seemed better versed on the rules of Parliament than her predecessor, Baleka Mbete.

But as the clock ticked on, and the De Klerk matter was rejected, the president was still not able to begin his address.

Another spurious point of order.

This time, it was Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan who was the target of the EFF’s ire. He sat unmoved in his chair as EFF MPs called for him to be fired, blaming him for the energy crisis, and the compromised operational state of SAA.

Gordhan looked down at his phone while the commotion continued.

He was among the MPs who clapped as Modise invited the EFF to leave the house, should they wish.

It was a farcical start to what ought to have been a significant speech.

Following repeated disruptions by the EFF Modise suspended the sitting. At this point the Mail & Guardian went to print.

The Mandela era

This week marked the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. We looked at images of the front page of the Weekly Mail (as the M&G was called then) with a sense of awe. Many of us were children and have fleeting recollections of the day. Others remember clearly the speech being delayed by some hours, and the rush to find the words to best capture those moments. Some just remember the day as a signal of something immense yet to come.

A few days later, in the first media interview Mandela gave after his release, he spoke to the Weekly Mail, condemning what he described as an overreaction to “incidents of hooliganism” at his Grand Parade welcoming rally.

“You take the example of the NP [National Party] youth during the time of United Party meetings — they beat up speakers … it is the exaggeration of whites who want to monopolise political power and who want to justify it by saying that blacks are not able to run their own affairs. I think we will not have much difficulty if we are given the opportunity to address the youth of this country.”

He is described in the story having spent a large part of the interview discussing the problems of discipline and working structures in the resistance movements. “The problems of black youths must be appreciated,” he said.

Thirty years on, and in very different circumstances, that last sentence should be a reminder to Ramaphosa, who has role-modelled Mandela’s leadership style.

In the hours before this year’s address, the presidency shared images and video of Ramaphosa deep in conversation with a Johannesburg schoolgirl, Sinoyolo Qumba, who had written to him last year with admiration for his role in securing South Africa’s liberation.

The letter itself is beautiful. It evokes the best parts of who we are as a nation. But Ramaphosa’s ability to truly listen to the youth, as a collective, is challenged by the tightrope he must walk, reconciling his government’s past promises with the harsh realities of its failures.

Lack of accountability

Load-shedding has left South Africans negotiating a perilous path between gridlocked roads and candlelit homes. Students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are fighting for better access to education and the residents of QwaQwa in the Free State still have no water. Then there’s the small matter of accountability for what the president has himself called the nine years of waste under the presidency of Jacob Zuma.

His speech was themed, “Following up on our commitments: making your future work better”.

But much of South Africa’s future depends on getting Eskom to work better. And though Ramaphosa can try, he cannot honestly offer a glowing review of Eskom’s turnaround. 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.

Ramaphosa has made promises before. In his address in February last year, he 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. There is little to show for all this.

In May last year, Phakamani Hadebe resigned as Eskom’s chief executive. Earlier this year, Jabu Mabuza resigned as the chairperson of the power utility’s board after failing to keep his promise to Ramaphosa 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. And it’s impossible to envision a comprehensive turnaround of the power utility without a capable management team who are not pestered by the majority shareholder.

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 continue to be late, as do the buses run by the 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 SOEs 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 comes at a time when SAA is under business rescue and has recently said it will cut several routes — a decision that will probably see many workers losing their jobs.

Over and over again, Ramaphosa has said all the right things about good governance. The intention appears to be sound enough, but the reality is still distant. And it is patience that is wearing thin.

The energy crisis also reveals one of the government’s other great failures — building a culture of trust with citizens.

It is well known, accepted even, that most residents in Soweto do not pay for electricity. In fact, even if Eskom does cut Soweto residents 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 residents owe the power utility somewhere between R1-billion and R18-billion. They are not alone; a host of municipalities owe Eskom tens of billions of rands.

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.

Pupils in QwaQwa have been to school for just seven days of the 2020 academic year while residents continue to protest for water. This is not new. The water crisis in QwaQwa has been going on since 2016. Taps ran dry in October last year. Now people rely on municipal tankers to deliver water, but even those are not reliable. A child recently drowned while fetching water from the river.

There is much to fix.

Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
Khadija Patel
> Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, a co-founder of the The Daily Vox and vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and the Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand) and has previously worked in community media. In 2017, she was among 11 people from across Africa and the diaspora who were awarded the inaugural Africa #NoFilter fellowship from the Ford Foundation and in 2018, she was awarded honorary membership of the Golden Key Society. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good. 
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