/ 10 February 2022

Sona 2022: ‘Don’t tear our democracy apart’, says Ramaphosa

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President Cyril Ramaphosa

Speaking as though he had heard his critics, president Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday in his sixth State of the Nation address (Sona) committed to seeing the recommendations of the Zondo commission implemented and resolved to take steps to tackle the energy crisis and unlock employment.

He spoke both of a commitment to the constitution and a new social and economic compact that would ensure that “no one is left behind”.

He also made a plea to the nation: “Let us go ahead and work together, instead of some of us tearing this country apart; instead of some of us tearing our democracy apart. This is the time for us to work together, and let us together build our country.”

R350 grant extended 

Crucially, the president announced that the social relief of distress grant introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic would be extended for another year. It is both a sizable commitment from the state and a sign that the bigger decision on whether to introduce a basic income grant has been kicked down the road for now.

“Mindful of the proven benefits of the grant, we will extend the R350 grant for one further year, to the end of March 2023. During this time, we will engage in broad consultations and detailed technical work to identify the best options to replace this grant,” Ramaphosa said. 

“Any future support must pass the test of affordability, and must not come at the expense of basic services or at the risk of unsustainable spending. It remains our ambition to establish a minimum level of support for those in greatest need.”

Zondo commission prosecutions

After recommitting to the Constitution, the president proceeded to speak at some length, somewhat against expectations, on the report of the Zondo commission of inquiry, the second instalment of which was handed to him 10 days ago.

“While the definitive conclusion has yet to be delivered at the end of this month, the first two parts of the report make it plain that there was indeed ‘state capture’. This means that public institutions and state-owned enterprises were infiltrated by a criminal network intent on looting public money for private gain.”

Ramaphosa reiterated that the first two parts of the report have confirmed and detailed the extent of the larceny at state-owned enterprises like Eskom, Transnet, the South African Revenue Service and SAA.

“State capture had a direct and very concrete negative impact on the lives of all South Africans, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. It has weakened the ability of the state to deliver services and to meet the expectations and constitutional rights of people,” the president said.

He added: “We must now do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again. My responsibility is to ensure that the commission report is properly and carefully considered and then acted upon. By no later than 30 June, I will present a plan of action in response to the commission’s recommendations.”

Ramaphosa also added, somewhat cryptically, that the private sector has volunteered to assist in providing those skills that the government at present lacked to enable the investigation and prosecution of crime. 

“To ensure that the prosecuting authority remains true to its constitutional obligation and to ensure transparency, we are developing a framework for private sector co-operation that will be managed through [the] treasury”, he said.

Last week, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said that it would take “an army of prosecutors” to act on the recommendation in his report. On this, the president said that discussions with the judiciary were underway for the creation of special court rolls for state capture and corruption cases.

It was not the easiest commitment to make for a president who is fighting for his political survival between now and the governing party’s elective conference in December, but Ramphosa renewed his commitment to well, renewal, along with clearing hurdles to combating inequality and addressing a dire record of service delivery.

Cabinet responsibility 

Along the way, he acknowledged the report on the deadly July unrest that laid overall responsibility at the cabinet’s door.

“This is a responsibility that we acknowledge and accept. We will, as recommended by the panel, develop and drive a national response plan to address the weaknesses that the panel has identified,” he said. 

“We will begin immediately by filling critical vacancies and addressing positions affected by suspensions in the State Security Agency and crime intelligence. We will soon be announcing leadership changes in a number of security agencies to strengthen our security structures.”

Ramaphosa continued by acknowledging a consensus, if you will, that the social reality of the country was unacceptable and needed redress.

“If there is one thing we all agree on, it is that the present situation — poverty, unemployment, inequality — is unacceptable. We need fundamental change to address growth in our country, and need long-lasting solutions,” he said. 

The  next steps the administration took would, he stressed,  “determine the course for future generations”.

‘The most wonderful Constitution’

“That’s why,” he continued, with a knowing smile, “we are taking steps to strengthen our democracy and affirm our Constitution that protects us all — the most wonderful Constitution in the world.

“There is a need both to address the immediate crisis and to create conditions for long-lasting stability and development. To achieve this, South Africa needs a new consensus.”

That consensus was born out of a common understanding of the country’s “challenging situation” and recognising the need to address unemployment, poverty and inequality.

“This should be a new consensus which recognises that the state must create an environment in which the private sector can invest and unleash the dynamism of the economy.

“As the social partners — government, labour, business and communities — we are working to determine the actions we will take together to build such a consensus.

We have begun discussions on what trade-offs are needed and what contribution we will each need to make.

“We have given ourselves 100 days to finalise a comprehensive social compact to grow our economy, create jobs and combat hunger.

“This work will build on the foundation of the economic reconstruction and recovery plan, which remains our common programme to rebuild the economy.”

No one should be left behind, Ramaphosa said. 

Legislative reform 

The president also listed a raft of areas, with energy foremost, in which legislative reform would be undertaken to relieve shortages and alleviate blockages and bottlenecks, stressing that the divide between rich and poor had been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ramaphosa reiterated that in the next few years, more than 500 megawatts of power will come online from bid window four, as well as 2 600MW from bid window 5, plus 800MW from risk-mitigation power projects in the pipeline.

He said bid window six would be opened soon and fresh gas power and battery storage proposals would be released this year. 

Ramaphosa also stressed the country’s commitment to global climate-change goals and that this would take practical effect in repurposing coal plants nearing the end of their lifespan.

He added that, if properly managed, the energy transition will benefit all “and allow our industries to remain globally competitive. It is important that, as [the] government, we walk in tow with the innovation they have already embraced”.

Striking a tone distinct from that of his recalcitrant Energy and Mineral Resources Minister, Gwede Mantashe, Ramaphosa stressed that this would unlock growth, including in the mining sector.

He rightly linked record unemployment to unreliable energy supply and the high cost of doing business in South Africa, and added, as he has in the past, that job creation was impossible without the private sector, stressing that it was the source of 80% of jobs in the country.

The private sector

“The key of the government is to create conditions that will enable the private sector …  this is the case all over the world,” he added to lukewarm applause from the gallery in the Cape Town City Hall, which was hosting the president’s sixth Sona after the devastating fire at parliament in January

Reaching for granular illustration of his intention to revive the economy, Ramaphosa said he was marked by the experience of seeing a woman arrested on a sidewalk for selling dog beds she made without a permit, and this should not be, because the proceeds or her work were destined to feed her family.

The president confided that he was wearing a suit made by Foschini, and said the clothing retailer had increased its local production to 50% from 20% five years ago — the remainder was made in Asia — and hauled out the somewhat shopworn trope “local is lekker”.

But it was with the same illustrative detail that he spoke of the need to extend some sort of welfare relief, provided the country can find a way of affording such without risking the delivery of basic services or lurching into unsustainable spending and further debt.

Political analyst Richard Calland said it was a speech that showed leadership and intent, along with a recognition of the weaknesses of the state.

“It is a bolder, clear speech in which he appeared to ‘release the handbrake’ a bit,” Calland observed.

“Does that suggest that he thinks it might be his last or, rather, that he has the resolve for a second term? Impossible to say, but apart from being rather weak on coal phase-out, he did not shirk the tough issues.”

This article has been updated since it was originally published.