/ 8 February 2024

Sona: What matters the message when the future hangs in the balance?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa Campaign In Soweto
On record: President Cyril Ramaphosa has lost his electoral pull and the Ramaphoria still present at the last elections has faded, according to commentators. Photo: Fani Mahuntsi/Getty Images


President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his eighth State of the Nation address (Sona) on Thursday in the knowledge both that there is a risk — how big or small depends on which opinion survey one reads — it could be his last and that there was little he could promise or implement in the coming months to measurably improve his electoral prospects. 

It is a given the president uses this opportunity every February to reflect on the administration’s achievements but Ramaphosa will probably continue doing this until polling day  and, along the way, resort to special pleading by reminding voters of every milestone reached since 1994. 

Analysts said his speech this week was always going to read as a last pitch from within parliament to influence how the election plays out  but time is not on the president’s side. This would put any governing party in a difficult position but it was worse for the ANC because of its failure to find answers to the most dire problems of the day.

“It is the first time in the history of this country that we’ve had a Sona in which there is at least a prospect that the person giving the Sona may not be the president after the next election,” political analyst Steven Friedman said. 

“My reading is that he probably will be president, come the end of the year, and then what he wants to do does matter, it is not irrelevant. 

“But I don’t think it is going to influence the election. People are not going to be sitting there saying, ‘He said nice things in Sona, so I am going to be voting for him.’” 

Academic, author and analyst Richard Calland agreed Ramaphosa’s undertakings this week were essentially meaningless as election material.

He believes the president will try to campaign on the ANC’s achievements over the past three decades because he knows it faces a harsh reckoning on its recent record.

He is presiding over a perennial energy crisis and not a single economic fundamental reads favourably. The national budget Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana tables in a fortnight will, at best, forecast continued stagnation.

And like Ramaphosa’s promises to end load-shedding, those to stop state capture and prosecute the culprits are coming to naught. 

More money for the National Prosecuting Authority will not instantly procure the skill to handle fraud and money-laundering cases and there is no hope of a windfall by way of bringing the Guptas back soon — probably ever. The justice ministry is being led in circles by the United Arab Emirates, now a fellow Brics member, which refuses to provide cogent reasons for its refusal to extradite them last year, without which the ministry believes, rightly, that it is pointless to file a fresh application. 

“Inevitably, in an election year, the head of government will set out their stall in terms of successes and positive trends. 

“That is not easy because so many of the metrics that one looks to for measuring government performance are negative for South Africa, whether it is jobs, growth or fiscal condition, all these are not positive,” Calland said.

“They may try to evoke the spirit of ’94 through a parade of remembrance, and if there are going to be government resources thrown at any government-led 30-year celebrations, they will try to piggyback on that to create some energy and momentum around their own campaign.

“In a way, it is an easier story to sell a long-term narrative, as in, ‘Think back 30 years to where this country was and look at what we have achieved since, difficult though it has been, problems though there are.’”

Those reforms that Ramaphosa has managed to implement in the past six years are hard to sell politically, more so to an electorate endlessly locked in bread-and-butter battles.

“The gains he has made have been in the foothills and they have been institutional,” Calland said.

“One can talk to capable, committed people in government who probably would not have been in the post but for Ramaphosa. So that is a positive. 

“The Presidential Climate Commission is one example. The move, even though difficult, is towards a just energy transition and all the potential of the green economy is there.

“His continued support for [Minister of Trade and Industry] Ebrahim Patel and the reforms and the attempt to drive a strong industrial growth strategy across the economy are important. 

“It does not get the attention it deserves — it is being misrepresented as meddling in the economy, whereas, in fact, often people are saying the government should do more.”

It is always hard for a campaigning politician to prove a counter-factual, along the lines of, had he not been at the helm, matters would have been worse still. 

To be fair there is some truth to it in Ramaphosa’s case, starting with the fact that he has made far better appointments than Zuma would have. The latter failed at every one of his three attempts to appoint a national director of public prosecutions without the decision being set aside on legal review.

It was Ramaphosa’s promise of a rupture with this level of corruption and incompetence that carried the ANC in the last elections. 

“In 2019, it was a Ramaphosa election and the Ramaphoria wave of 2018 was still there, and across class, race and province, there is evidence that people voted for the ANC with maybe pinched noses but recognising that he offered some level of hope and that he had the capabilities necessary to lead,” Calland said.

In the five years since it has become clear — crisply so two months ago at the ANC’s elective conference, where it put people the Zondo commission recommend face prosecution in top positions — that he is captive to the party’s intractable internal struggle between integrity and corruption and cannot hope to restore a majority of voters’ faith in the renewal drive.

His credibility has been significantly dented since, not only by the comrades and cabinet ministers letting the side down, but by the Phala Phala scandal that continues to cast doubt on his personal integrity.

Friedman said the electoral pull of Ramaphosa’s persona has faded, as was plain in the last local government elections.

“The perception is still there in the ANC that he is more popular than the party but I don’t think it is the kind of factor it was when he first took over, in the 2019 national elections. 

“That was a very specific situation in the sense that he had taken over after the Zuma period and that there were expectations that, if people supported the ANC, even if they weren’t happy with what Zuma had done, that he would turn the whole thing around and clearly a lot of those expectations have not been met,” Friedman said.

“There has been a breakdown of trust between the ANC and large sections of the constituency which is why it finds itself where it is at the moment. And once you have that breakdown of trust, quite obviously people don’t believe promises because they don’t trust the people making the promises.”

Like Friedman, Calland suspects Ramaphosa will remain in power after the elections. The question is for how long, and that depends on the margin of the ruling party. 

If it clears 50%, there is no crisis and he reaps the credit. Slightly below allows him to stay but 46% will see him gone, he predicted.

“Once you are below 47%, or even 48%, firstly you have led the ANC to its first defeat at national level and, second, you are even more of a lame-duck president. 

“Given what we know about his appetite for the job, there is every question he will want to get out but people once again will twist his arm to stick around to hold the middle ground,” he said.

The strain is showing. Last week Ramaphosa made a suggestion to the ANC’s national executive committee lekgotla that foreign powers were bent on “regime change”. 

Senior members of the government ran with the brief in off-the-record interviews, pointing both to the US and Israel as probable suspects.

The conspiracy-theorising fuelled more of the same from the president’s detractors. Their drift is that South Africa launched its plea to the International Court of Justice to order a ceasefire to prevent genocide in Gaza, and agree to consider whether Israel is violating international law, in a desperate attempt to draw attention away from the ANC’s domestic failures.

Friedman said the idea is risible, because no right-thinking person would rush to the court with this motive or believe it would work. 

Besides, those with a working knowledge of government know the approach was not Ramaphosa’s idea, but driven by the department of international relations, in particular director general Zane Dangor, and progressive lawyers who believed there was a compelling case to make.

To suggest otherwise, Calland said, “you essentially have to put aside 50 years of ANC support for the Palestinian cause, which is in its DNA. This is a deeply held, long-held position of support.”