While President Cyril Ramphosa’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) was once again filled with ambitious plans, many continue to question the practicality of its implementation. In a colourful event on Thursday evening, not short of drama, Ramaphosa outlined his vision for South Africa’s future.
Aside from the professional glitz and glamour that adorned the red carpet ahead of his speech, the president was not graced with a cordial sitting. One and a half sentences in, and he was interrupted by a point of order by the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema. The Red Berets had made a grand entrance singing and clapping to struggle songs.
The interjection was however not unexpected, as Malema had last week made it clear that as long as Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan remained in his position, ‘Parliament will be disrupted’. But, the point of order which Malema had chosen to rise on had instead drawn glaring attention to the presence of former President FW De Klerk, who Malema labelled a “murderer” for his role in Apartheid.
It comes after De Klerk answered questions at a press briefing in Johannesburg on Sunday, in anticipation of the 30-year commemoration of the release of political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sisulu and the unbanning of political movements. The iconic day, on the 10 February 1990, had set in motion the negotiation of a political settlement that would see the end of the Apartheid regime.
At the briefing, De Klerk acknowledged and apologized for the fact that the racist system “wreaked havoc on millions of South Africans”. But he also argued that “there was never a genocide under apartheid (and that) more people died because of black-on-black violence.”
De Klerk contradicted the General Assembly of United Nations’ adoption of the ‘International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’ which globally declared Apartheid as “a crime against humanity”.
The EFF insisted that De Klerk leave, which Speaker Balaka Mbete and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Mr Amos Masondo, Malema, ruled against. Mbete stated that it is custom to have all former presidents present during the joint sitting of SONA and rejected EFF’s suggestion of having the Premiers ‘step out to deliberate’ on the matter.
After continuing to object to his presence, and despite Mbete having already ruled in that regard, the next bone of contention was brought up in a powerful assertion by EFF national Spokesman Vuyani Pambo – the axing of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Ghordan.
The EFF accuses Gordhan of misleading the president and being responsible for the failure of State-Owned Entities (SOE’s), such as Eskom and South African Airways (SAA). The management and corruption at SOE’s were hot on the lips of MP’s prior in anticipation of Ramaphosa’ address, with many pointing to its economic significance.
Millions of viewers eagerly- awaiting the president’s address were most likely as embarrassed as numerous speakers who had attempted to bring proceedings back on course. These included the DA’s Natasha Mazzone, the NFP’s Ahmad Sheikh and FF Plus’s Pieter Grobbelaar, among others, while frustrated onlookers sighed and booed in apparent support of their suggestions.
After numerous failed attempts to gain the co-operation of the EFF, the joint sitting was- for the first time- suspended. EFF members responded with chanting that reiterated their calls of Pravin must Go!” and “De Klerk must Go!”. Mdise resumed proceedings ten minutes later and, after having held talks among each other, EFF members continued to chant as they existed the sitting.
Speaking to VOC on Friday morning, the director of research at political thinktank ASRI, Angelo Fick, said that the display of disregard for the speaker’s rulings would not bode well for potential support:
“I think it is a step back for the EFF to time in when those kinds of strategies did appeal to people and gave the much support, people who were disaffected to the ANC. Whether this strategy will work beyond the EFF existing support base remains to be seen in 2021. But my sense is it was misdirected, that it was poor timing, that also that there was sort of many unrelated issues upon which they were objecting in order to delay the processes,” said Fick.
“They started with the presence of the last apartheid president and one of the first deputy president of the Republic of South Africa in its place to protect these FW De Klerk saying that he must leave the chamber. They then moved on to wanting to move Gordhan that then they wanted processes suspended- all of this to me is kind of spectacle that may well have some measures of truth in the allegations that they make against these people. But at the same time do not actually, it’s not the right space and the right time,” he added.
The analyst emphasized that the timing of queries, respect for the rules of the house and adherence to the proper procedure, is crucial for efficient governance of the country.
“Political timing is crucial and I think it’s not just members of the host became impatient but ordinary South Africans also became impatient because a delay in the state of the nation for up to an hour or more is a delay in the lives of people who want to follow it for now and move on and do the rest of their productive lives.”
Fick echoed Mbete’s sentiment that SONA was not the appropriate platform to voice these concerns.
“And so ironically, it’s something that Julius Malema said in his one of his responses that they are ‘being paid’ to be there and make a contribution. An ordinary South Africans will ask very tough questions about whether or not what they’re paying Mr Malema and his colleagues is worth an hour and more of delays, that is not necessarily advancing: 1. the democratic project 2. the business of Parliament and 3. the holding of accountability or holding to account the various members of the executive in the appropriate forum. And there I think there has been some backfiring mistaking in this direction.”
The president acknowledged the failures of government to address the inequality in the nation, but remained adamant that it is possible to overcome the socio-economic ills the country faces such as crime and poverty.
“It seems more honest in its understanding of the state of the political economy of the country. But it also struck me as a reminder that the SONA is merely a symbolic occasion. And so, you’re not going to find the kind of detail on how plans are going to be implement. This is the broader kind of agenda for the meeting and the meeting itself will come when various ministers have to do the Q and A session in March addressing what their departments are going to do to implement this plan.”
According to Fick, this year’s speech was different in that it was necessarily optimistic:
“There also seems to be a kind of optimism in the speech that I think may be necessary given the depressed political and economic mood. But it’s in the details of the speech that there are some contradictions that I think will have to be addressed at some point both by President in the debate that they’re engaged in next week but also by members of parliament as they engage policy implementation because the challenge for Ramaphosa government lies in implementation. The speech signals it but we ordinary South Africans have known for a while that implementation is one of the weaknesses of the current state.
“We’ve seen the beginning of some of that implementation by the actions of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) last year arresting high profile figures. We’ve seen it in other places but when it comes to SOE’s, it seems to be much more difficult much more complicated and how that works out without there being job losses is crucial. And secondly the contradictions for example between saying you want to engage young people and make sure that the climate crisis does not overwhelm the population and on the other hand invest money in industries that contribute actively towards climate emergency. Those kinds of contradictions I think will have to be looked through and looked at, so that ordinary citizens don’t ride high on the hope and crush on the reality of its implementation. “
South Africans also needed to know that their access to energy is not hindered by infrastructural and financial restraints, looking to government to cater to the needs of its most vulnerable. Here, resolutions to ailing SOE’s were placed high on the agenda.
Corruption and mismanagement at Eskom have placed its sustainability as the primary source of South Africa’s energy in question. Load shedding, in particular, has been the thorn in the sides of families, businesses- owners and potential international investors. Ramaphosa acknowledged the manner in which it “disrupts people’s lives, causing frustration, inconvenience, hardship”.
In a move many had been hoping for, Ramaphosa announced measures that would make it easy for South Africans to secure their own source of energy by allowing “all applications by commercial and industrial users to produce electricity for own use above 1MW are processed within the prescribed 120 days.”
“So, this is the unbundling of Eskom its monopoly on energy supply energy, generation energy, distribution. This is something that the IPP’s have been agitating for well over a decade at least five years. Several independent power producers in the renewable energy sector have agitated government and publicly done so to, kind of uncouple comms hold on municipalities by being the sole supplier and distributor of energy,” said Fick.
“The plan is to diversify where energy comes from and there is a mention that Eskom may not be the only supplier to municipalities and solvent municipalities will be able to source their energy elsewhere. That used to be the case in some senses where municipalities have local power stations and it is important for us to begin to think of how that’s going to happen and to ensure that this isn’t simply a policy statement but it’s actually implemented,” he added.
“In places like the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town is likely to be able to go without too much of a hitch. But in places where the city government the provincial government are not necessarily of the same party with their coalition governments and where there are those political battles in government spilling over- there it is going to be complicated. But I think it’s crucial to monitor,” Fick elaborated.
The president announced six resolutions to help bolster the education sector for youth to reach their full potential and ensure the skills they acquire allow them to secure a job and a means of sustaining themselves. But, with a stagnant 11-year-old unemployment rate standing at 21.6%, many have questioned governments ability to achieve economic stability. The researcher highlighted that advances in the education sector also have to be realistic.
“Those are the policy shift various people have been saying for five years should be (implemented). Whether it is timeous and how quickly it will be implemented, that remains to be seen,” he said.
“There are student residences to the tune of 64 billion that will be built. There are other issues that are going to cost 664 billion. We’re already a 50 billion run short for tax revenue generating country. So, the budget is already falling short of what is required. It does mean there’ll be going to international lenders coming out of China which is facing its own crises and economic growth and the downturn. Does this mean we go to the IMF? Does that mean we start dipping into savings? Things like the PSC and pension schemes are agitated by some people because the short-term solution cannot impact on the longer-term possibilities that ordinary people have,” he said.
The government would need to ensure equal access to the essential services, particularly to keep up with an increasingly digitized civilization.
“One example of that is if you for example do the entire job application process as the city of Cape Town does online and you have to register your data all of those things become complicated because it leaves large swathes of people out of the loop who can’t access those spaces and can’t engage the cities as they become more and more technologically implicated in a globalized system that has left millions of people in South Africa behind
Ramaphosa acknowledged the stark inequalities throughout the country and said an important aspect to improve the country was to focus on the development of the youth.
In his speech, Ramaphosa acknowledged Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, 2019 World Rugby Champion’s Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and Lenasia South’s Grade 11 student Sinoyolo Qumba who had helped the president right his speech. He said the trio inspired and restored the patriotism of millions of people, this reassuring him that the future of the country is in the hands of capable youth.
Siyabonga Tiwana, Sibusiso Mahone and Tholakele Nkosi were also among 1000 Young entrepreneurs who will receive grant funding and business support, through the National Youth Development Agency and the Department of Small Business Development within the next 100 days.
“The key component in that of course is skills and basic education and the president paints a very rosy picture of basic education by talking about the 81 per cent matriculation rate the pass rate and the TVET colleges. What I think will be a far more shall we say accurate reflection of how that system is working is the employability of people who come out of these spaces,” said Fick.
“We know that the people coming out of higher education, for example, are often under-prepared for the workplace. There are skills deficits and not just of the full digitisation and coding type, but at the very basic reading kind. So the question of those 10-year-olds not being able to read for meaning in any language whatsoever – that has consequences when it comes to actually having the skills because many skills that are needed require literacy of a very, very specific and high-quality kind,” he added.
“And the president himself had to admit that while there has been job creation unemployment has deepened. So when we start talking about all these ‘smart cities’ we’re talking about access we’re talking about you know there’s talk from the president about you know lowering data costs but there’s also about literacy that is crucial because you know so many people in this country are confounded by things like ATM’s founded by all sorts of other everyday issues that have to be engaged with. So, the smart city development issues are nice to have. But if it’s built on a foundation where people can’t access the services, can’t engage the cities in productive ways- that’s crucially problematic.
Sharing the default reaction like the rest of the country, he said only time would tell.
“I think despite all of my criticisms of the speech -which I think all citizens should get those criticisms that’s what we pay these people in parliament and to the effect of millions for -a sea change and the sea change and the positive change that says we have problems, this is an honest take on our problems and it is our duty as citizens to press the president to have an even more honest approach to these things. And there I think it is a different era. It is not the era of where we celebrate everything that he does but it is an era in which it is a signal class of citizens that the president is at least willing to stand up and say these are mistakes, these are our problems and these are the actions that I propose,” he urged.