President Cyril Ramaphosa’s big speeches tend to go the same way: filled with plans and promises, hope and hyperbole, but delivered to an audience that knows internal party politics will render them pointless.
Thus it has been for his past five State of the Nation addresses (Sona).
This year Ramaphosa first lit candles to remember those who have died from Covid-19. Reading from an iPad in a near-empty parliament, his face carried the imprint of his face mask. A new reality. His speech focused on rebirth, narrated through the image of the “hardy” fynbos, an indigenous plant that needs fire every two decades to be born again, to “herald a new dawn and a new day”.
In this it was classic Ramaphosa Sona, first said with the energy of “thuma mina” in 2018, then in last year’s request for a “social compact” and finally in this year’s goal of “a new and more equal economy, and a better and more just society”. Ever the consensus builder, his pitch to a nation worn down by the greed and ineptitude of its leaders is that picking up South Africa is the work of everyone.
This year’s pitch focused on four areas: defeating the coronavirus pandemic; accelerating economic recovery; driving economic reform to ensure “sustainable jobs and inclusive growth”; and fighting corruption while strengthening the state.
Of those, the last three are a repeat of what he has promised every year. But this year he ensured that he talked about tangible progress, such as the poultry sector producing a million more chickens each month. “This is reality,” he said. “It is happening as we speak.”
That sense of progress was key to Ramaphosa’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, announced last year. He said this has four focuses: a substantial infrastructure rollout, a huge increase in local production; an employment stimulus to create jobs; and the rapid expansion of energy-generation capacity.
But all this comes after a disastrous year. Hundreds of companies have folded in the face of the pandemic, infrastructure spend has ground to a halt, and unemployment stands at a record 30.8%.
Although the pandemic was a central focus of his speech, with yet more promises of rebuilding spurred on by the crisis of this moment, the words are again undermined by reality. As the Mail & Guardian reports this week, the ANC is continuing to wrap itself in contradiction and hypocrisy as its various factions seek power so as to avoid jail and keep grasping at the levers of theft.
The handling of state-owned entities (SOEs) is a case in point. Ramaphosa, despite his profiting from the myth of trickle-down economics, sticks to the party line when it comes to the role of the government and its institutions. The fifth renewable-energy window, which the president promised would be pushed ahead in his last Sona, is still delayed, thanks to the much-criticised oversight of Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.
With load-shedding returning this week, Ramaphosa admitted there will be a shortfall of between 4 000 and 6 000 megawatts in electricity supply over the next five years. He promised a request for proposals for 2 600MW of wind and solar energy would be issued “in the coming weeks”. This would add to the planned 11 800MW of energy from renewable sources, as well as batteries, natural gas and coal.
Each year comes with a promise that SOEs will be turned around. This year was no different. “The mandates of all SOEs are being re-evaluated to ensure that they are responsive to the country’s needs and the implementation of the National Development Plan,” Ramaphosa said.
However, in the middle of a pandemic the president and his financial team were able to find R10-billion for another bailout for SAA. A few months later, they realised that billions were needed to fund the acquisition of a Covid-19 vaccine. Eskom can barely function and continues to emit toxic gases. Not much has changed in Mpumalanga, with air pollution killing hundreds of people each year. And, whereas other countries have committed to net zero emissions by 2050 to keep global warming to safe levels, South Africa is silent.
The South African Post Office clings on to life, barely managing to give a lifeline to people queuing for their social grants. Recent heavy rains have shown the lack of investment in public infrastructure. And the healthcare system is on life support, battling with the deadly coronavirus.
At the time of Ramaphosa’s 2020 Sona, the country was in a recession and the last ratings agency would shortly list its sovereign debt as junk. Covid-19 was swirling, but had not yet devastated families, necessitating regulations that hit the economy hard. Since then, excess deaths have reached about 130 000 — not all as a result of Covid, the official death tally of which is more than 46 000.
The cost of state capture
The president’s initial, rapid response to Covid-19 drew international appreciation. But the pandemic had shown up the true cost of state capture — people don’t trust the information from the government, and hospitals are found wanting. In the Eastern Cape, the province synonymous with greed above public service, the death rate per capita is one of the highest in the world.
Ramaphosa again talked about tackling corruption, but Covid-19 has shown that the corrupt have no sense of shame. The personal protective equipment rip-off, which the Special Investigating Unit laid bare last week, and which involves at least R13-billion in dubious contracts, is a true test of the president.
The president said a national anti-corruption strategy was being implemented to grow on the momentum being built in law-enforcement agencies. Mentioning the flow of shocking corruption allegations arising at the Zondo commission, Ramaphosa said: “Testimony at the commission has shown how the criminal justice system was compromised and weakened.”
In mentioning the pandemic of gender-based violence, Ramaphosa said: “Ending gender-based violence is imperative if we lay claim to being a society rooted in equality and non-sexism.” The legislation to back his words is still grinding through the system.
Like so much in the president’s speech, this work highlighted the time that it takes to rebuild a state that has been stripped of skilled workers and hope. But that time requires that Ramaphosa continue in his role in the governing party.
It has often been said that, in the 27 years of democracy, government policy is run from Luthuli House, that brutalist block building on Pixley ka Isaka Seme Street in Johannesburg that houses the ANC’s national headquarters. And, although Ramaphosa ended his speech by saying “we can get through this because we are a nation of heroes”, the reality is that the future lies in how his party works out its internal issues.