/ 7 February 2022

Sona 2022: Tell us what’s happened, Mr President

Safrica Health Virus Food
Covid hampers were distributed by charities at the Iterileng informal settlement in 2020, but the government failed to respond structurally to the pandemic. (Photo by Marco LONGARI / AFP)

The 2022 State of the Nation address (Sona) should be an opportunity for President Cyril Ramaphosa to update South Africans about what the government has achieved since his first Sona of 2018.

It would be good for the country to know what has been accomplished and where more effort is needed. 

It can’t be that every year the Sona is presented without review of what was previously put forward and without hearing about challenges that may have led to plans not being implemented.

For example, the president committed in 2018 to the creation of “a million internships in the next three years”. What has come of this commitment? The “youth working group” of which the president spoke also has not been established.

Unemployment is at the highest point it has ever been, with youth unemployment sitting at 50%. Economic growth has altogether stalled, indeed an impact of Covid-19 but nonetheless a reality, pan/endemic or not. 

We need a government that is innovative and solutions-driven. 

Instead, it continues to talk about economic recovery, while the wealth of the country is still in the hands of a small elite, and while the South African Revenue Service is hyperfocused on finding new means of taxing the indebted middle class. Instead, the authority should be tackling tax avoidance and profit-shifting by the wealthy and big business. 

We also note the continued allegations of corruption that make headlines weekly. When will we see the accountability that has been consistently promised?

In 2018, Ramaphosa committed to “find time to meet with provincial and local government leaders to ensure that the state, in its entirety, responds to the pressing needs of our people”. 

And yet, many, many communities across the land still live without access to water and sanitation. Service delivery is still weak, with numerous protests happening every day. 

The low turnout in the recent local elections was as a result of poor service delivery — participation in voting has been undermined by the growing consensus among the public that their needs are being continually ignored.

South Africa missed an excellent opportunity to use the Covid-19 pandemic for economic restructuring and transformation, a necessary prelude to expanding participation to include more citizens in the economy. 

More than five million people applied for the R350 Covid social relief of distress grant when the government announced a raft of measures to prop up the economy. This brought into sharp focus the levels of inequality that exist in our society. The margin between the poor and rich keeps expanding. 

There is a growing call for a basic income grant (BIG), which was initially discussed during the era of the late former social development minister Zola Skweyiya. “The Job Summit [of 1998] demanded a comprehensive social security system, not just a basic income grant,” Skweyiya said. 

Now, current Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu has brought it back to the table. The government needs to end corruption and vast irregular expenditure. Should this happen, the country could no doubt afford the BIG.  

Sona should go into detail about how to support the often overlooked sectors and people in the economy, such as small and informal businesses as well as lower-middle-income and poor households. 

Small and informal businesses took a serious battering during the Covid lockdowns that started in early 2020. These lockdowns took away regular customers and income. 

In 2018, Ramaphosa said the following: “We will reduce the regulatory barriers for small businesses. I am going to make sure that regulatory barriers are reduced.” 

Even when there was indeed an opportunity to participate in government schemes, many of the businesses these scheme were meant to benefit, found themselves unable to obtain the Covid-19 relief grant because of the cumbersome bureaucratic processes that were out of touch with the realities on the ground.

In 2018, Ramaphosa also said, “We call on mining companies to work together with all stakeholders to ensure that mine accidents are dramatically reduced.” 

While noting that the economy needs to grow, the government should learn from the example of Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape in terms of such engagements. 

Increasing inequality: The Xolobeni community’s views on mining should be heard. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The people of those mining-affected communities, as the primary stakeholders, should be properly consulted and their anti-mining views should not be dismissed.

The stunning Wild Coast is indeed a world-class tourist attraction and would benefit the economy by being empowered as such for generations to come, rather than having a 15-year mining project ruin the landscapes and local livelihoods, leaving nothing once the mine has closed and the profits shifted to Australia. 

We call on the Minister of Tourism Lindiwe Sisulu to work with the community in the Alfred Nzo district municipality.

There was a lot of discussion about building a capable and ethical developmental state in South Africa in the 2000s. This debate has been going on for far too long. We need this initiative now. 

The National School of Government should be given more resources to instil the principle of batho pele in all civil servants. The school should be in all

provinces, making sure that no junior government officials or councillors are left behind. We need to build a patriotic, impartial, and reliable civil service who will understand the importance of serving South Africans at all times and not involve themselves in activities of corruption at all spheres of government.

Finally, we also need to look beyond our own borders. South Africa is not an island. We have neglected our foreign allies and relationships for years. Last year’s Sona did not touch on our foreign policy and this year’s must correct that. 

Much is happening in the Southern African region and the rest of the continent: Covid-19, the African Continental Free Trade Area, a disturbing number of coups, climate change, and so on.

Political and social turmoil is being experienced in Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique, and Zimbabwe is nearing its election in 2023. 

MPs need to continue to build relations with progressive politicians in other countries that will help to advance the AU Agenda 2063 and address relevant, cross-cutting international issues in the Pan African Parliament. To advance economic diplomacy on the continent, we need a stable political environment.

It is important to have a Sona that shows that the president, and our government, are accountable to South Africans. We cannot continue listening to wish-list Sonas that are about big promises that are not delivered.  

Ramaphosa in 2018 said “thuma mina” — when someone sets off on a task, you expect a report-back. Now is the time for the president to account to South Africans on the plans we have heard.