/ 17 February 2023

The 2023 Post-Sona Critical Thinking Forum

Post Sona Talk
2023 post Sona panellists Athandiwe Saba, former M&G deputy editor; Dr Roland Ngam, Programme Manager for Climate Change and Sociological Transfomation at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung; Lizeka Tandwa, Political Editor at the Mail & Guardian; Tessa Dooms, Director Rivonia Circle, and Professor Richard Calland, Associate Professor, University of Cape Town.

Ramaphosa’s address broke little new ground, according to the panellists

This year the Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum’s post State of the Nation Address (Sona) took place in association with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Moderated by Mail & Guardian Deputy Editor Athandiwe Saba, the panel consisted of: Dr Roland Ngam, Programme Manager for Climate Change and Socioecological Transformation at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung; Lizeka Tandwa, Mail & Guardian Senior Political Editor; Tessa Dooms, Development Practitioner and Rivonia Circle Director; and Richard Calland, Associate Professor of Public Law at the University of Cape Town. The panellists addressed several key themes, foremost of which was the ongoing electricity crisis. Other topics touched on included what was missing from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech and the current condition of his presidency. 

Ramaphosa committed his opening words of the 2023 State of the Nation Address to a 2022 highlights package — including Banyana Banyana’s victory at the African Cup of Nations and post Covid-19 economic growth. Thereafter he transitioned onto more immediate concerns. “We are concentrating on those issues that concern South Africans the most,” Ramaphosa began, “load-shedding; unemployment; poverty and the rising cost of living; and crime and corruption.” Crime, employment and education have recently become arguable constants in a South African president’s annual address. Many were more focussed on what the president had to say on load-shedding, on which he declared a national state of disaster. He then announced plans to introduce a minister of electricity in the office of the presidency. 

The connection between reliable energy supply and economic growth can’t be severed in a modern economy. This led the president to also announce plans to invest R1.5 billion into the economy through the Just Energy Transition Plan. With increased funding and plans to invest in the green energy sector, panellists stressed that there are other areas also crying out for attention. Dooms questioned the president’s buoyant attitude on more than seven million South Africans receiving grants: “R350 needs a plan beyond that monthly payout. Is it going to be spent at supermarkets or does it have a greater purpose?” 

Dr Ngam questioned the lack of focus on suffering sectors of the economy. “A lot of oxygen is taken up speaking about Eskom, especially by the middle class, but our rural markets are suffering. A million jobs in the tourism sector have been lost,” he said. Despite the dour tone surrounding energy, the Rosa Luxemburg programme manager said that Rampahosa tried to pierce through that with his own tone of resilience. Tandwa echoed the sentiment, saying that he tried to imbue his words with hope and strength. 

Prior to its announcement, groups across South Africa called for the declaration of a national state of disaster to deal with load-shedding, including the DA. Dooms was supportive of the idea of a state of disaster. “We do need to take aggressive steps,” she explained, “but I don’t think the country trusts the government with a state of disaster. Whether it’s constitutional or not, people don’t believe the government will do the right thing in the right way.” 

Dooms was appointed to the National Planning Commission in 2015, and questioned the efficacy of installing a new minister in the office of the presidency. “The president is amassing great power in an office that doesn’t have great accountability. The electricity minister sitting in the presidency is a leadership and accountability question. The more he puts into his office, the less accountable strategic things are,” she said. 

Some in the legal field have questioned the declaration’s legality. Saba asked the panel: “A state of disaster is something we have no control over — we’ve had control over Eskom. Is this legally sound?” Calland responded: “There’s no provision in the disaster management act that says you can call a state of disaster because your cabinet’s incompetent or because your government’s incapable. I don’t believe it will stand up to legal scrutiny. If it is challenged, and I hope it is, then I think it will fall.” 

Calland had specific criticism for Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe. The minister has been hesitant to green light renewable energy production for the national grid. “Mantashe is an obstruction to renewable energy. Keep in mind that 10% more renewable energy on the national grid would have meant no load-shedding. He’s not fit to be in that office and [with the introduction of a minister of electricity] Ramaphosa has taken electricity out of his management, essentially,” Calland said. 

There were tempered expectations for the minister of electricity among the panellists. Tandwa shared her assessment that Rampahosa’s move to introduce the new minister was political, but noted that the identity of the appointment is still a mystery. The senior political editor said that the president presenting as more decisive and in charge owed much to the new minister’s announcement, despite the fact that who the minister will be hasn’t been revealed yet. “Rampahosa is the most trusted person in the ANC,” Tandwa declared. “Polling suggests that without him the ANC would win 30% of the vote in the next elections and 48% with him.” This moved the panellists into a discussion about Rampahosa’s presidency and whether his longevity in the position marries with the longevity of his plans.

Dooms alleged that rather than a will to impact change, there are forces within the ANC that are keeping the president in the job. “He said that he doesn’t need the job. It’s clear that Ramaphosa is a political prisoner that the ANC needs in the presidency,” Dooms asserted. “He will stay until 2024 and there are many interested parties who want to keep him there,” Tandwa added. Dr Ngam felt as though parts of the State of the Nation were to shore up support or placate parts of the party — the same party from which he was recently on the brink of being ousted as president. “He was speaking to the ANC and then speaking to the country,” Ngam said. Calland said: “Ramaphosa is weak at navigating multiple interests. He was a good trade unionist because he had one interest, but as president he has too many interest groups and he can’t keep them all happy.” 

A central theme among panellists was that they believed there was little new ground broken by Ramaphosa. It was noted that there was a big focus on electricity and a low focus on Eskom. Dr Ngam noted that a plan to privatise energy production in South Africa was slowly coming to fruition and that the Sona was in fact a state of intent: “[President Ramaphosa] has spoken about a ‘robust energy generation market’, so it’s clear where he’s going.”  Dooms highlighted the need for Eskom not to be allowed to fail as a state-owned enterprise. “We cannot allow Eskom to fail — 90% of this country needs a public power provider. We can’t just open up the gates to privatisation and let Eskom go into oblivion,” she stressed. 

The president has laid down a plan for the year and the years ahead, and he will be judged according to the outcomes thereof — sooner or later.