/ 10 February 2023

Protests are the true state of the nation … the government is detached from its people’

Critical Thinking Forum
Panelists discuss the state of the nation address in Cape Town. (David Harrison/M&G)

South Africans feel alienated from the country’s democratic process in which they are considered mere benefactors and not roleplayers, social development activist Tessa Dooms said on Friday, during a forum on the previous evening’s annual State of the Nation address.

Dooms was part of a panel discussion at the Critical Thinking Forum, hosted by the Mail & Guardian and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Cape Town, after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to parliament.

Referencing a planned protest outside parliament on Thursday — which she said ended up not taking place because the police would not give the organisers a permit — Dooms said the fact that there were more police than would-be protesters showed that “the government is scared of its people”.

“They can feel the temperature but it (the government) doesn’t really know what the temperature is,” said Dooms, adding that communities were “hard at work and organising for change”.

Daily protests were the real state of the nation, Dooms added.

She said Ramaphosa’s speech did not speak to the entirety of the nation and that the government should draw citizens into “co-governance” to get everyone involved in solving South Africa’s problems.

A member of the audience at the panel discussion, Damaris Kiewiets, who is the community liaison officer at the University of the Western Cape, said Ramaphosa had not  considered communities in his address. Kiewiets noted that the ongoing energy crisis, which featured prominently in the speech, had affected people’s mental health, because of its devastating impact on every facet of their lives.

“The energy crisis has taken preference to people’s wellness,” said Kiewiets, who compared the president’s speech with candyfloss: “You bite but you bite nothing.”

Social assistance

In his seventh State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa said more than 25 million people in South Africa received some form of income support, while an estimated 2 million indigent households received free basic water, basic electricity and solid-waste removal. 

“Around 60% of our budget is spent on what is known as the social wage, providing various forms of support, basic services and assistance to households and individuals to combat poverty and hunger,” he said.

Ramaphosa also announced that the R350 social relief of distress grant — introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and supporting 7.8 million people — would remain in place and be adjusted according to the rising cost of living.  

“We will ensure that existing social grants are increased to cushion the poor against rising inflation,” he said.

However, Dooms argued supporting 25 million people “is not a big win”, saying social assistance must be comprehensive and required a strategy “that goes beyond the grant being delivered and dispersed to somebody … We need to know what the return of that investment for the country is.”

National state of disaster

Panellist and public law professor Richard Calland spoke about the constitutionality of the national state of disaster announced by Ramaphosa in response to the electricity crisis. The Disaster Management Act, Calland noted, says a national state of disaster can be instituted if the circumstances do not allow for a crisis to be resolved through normal legislation. 

“There is no provision that says you can call a state of disaster because your cabinet is incompetent or your government is not capable,” Calland said, adding that the implementation of the state of disaster might lack legal ground. 

Dooms argued that, regardless of the legalities, the country had lost trust in the government. 

“Whether it (the state of disaster) is constitutional or not, people don’t believe that this government, even when it does the right thing, will do it the right way,” she said.