[OPINION] Sona 2019: President Ramaphosa must move beyond the platitudes
The theme for this year’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) we are told is ‘Following up on our commitments - Making Your Future Work Better’. As someone wryly remarked, we would all be happier if the present worked better. Indeed.
Yet, it’s hard to think that a year ago we were furiously speculating when the Sona would take place and who would deliver it? At that point, Jacob Zuma was still hanging onto the Presidency for dear life. A lot can - and has- happened in a year.
On Thursday evening President Ramaphosa will deliver the annual Sona and face a country weary of corruption and outrageous allegations of state capture which have been a steady, if unpleasant, daily diet for us all. He will face citizens not only weary but cynical too. Will Ramaphosa’s ANC, so deeply divided and corrupt, be able to fulfill the promise of last year when Ramaphosa exhorted us to seek the better angels of our nature in the rallying cry ‘Thuma mina!’, we ask ourselves?
2019 is also an election year and so this session of Parliament is a short one. Members of Parliament will start campaigning as early as 29 March. The president will doubtless make the usual promises. The ANC manifesto, after all, traverses well-worn territory - seeking to ensure job creation, better healthcare and education and dealing decisively with crime, amongst others things. In addition, the manifesto makes grand promises about ending state capture. Given what we are hearing at the Zondo Commission, this will be an uphill battle. If even half of the allegations made by former Bosasa COO Angelo Agrizzi are true, then it indicates that corruption is brazenly endemic within ministries and departments.
Ramaphosa’s own position is precarious as he attempts to lead a clean-up of government within an ANC which is deeply divided and after Nasrec where his support came in the form of a tenuous majority.
Despite it all, the president can come to Parliament claiming some gains in trying to clean up the state. He has made important inroads and there is no doubt that the Zuma years were indeed ‘wasted years’ as he recently claimed at Davos and that we are better off with a Ramaphosa presidency.
In his address to the ANC faithful at the launch of its manifesto recently, Ramaphosa admitted, "We accept that mistakes have been made and in some critical areas progress has stalled".
That might be an understatement, but in the last year we have seen a Cabinet reshuffle, which even though imperfect saw the departure of deeply problematic ministers such as Lynne Brown, Des Van Rooyen, David Mahlobo and Faith Muthambi. We have also seen the departure of Siyabonga Gama at Transnet, Anoj Singh at Eskom, Berning Ntlemeza at the Hawks, Dudu Miyeni at SAA and Lucky Montana at Prasa and, of course, Shaun Abrahams as the NDPP. All welcome departures – and there are also a string of commissions or inquiries investigating wrongdoing at Sars, the PIC and the NPA.
The question, of course, is whether any prosecutions will happen as a result of what is being revealed? Our new NDPP Shamila Batohi will have her work cut out for her, but hers is a good appointment and Ramaphosa can be pleased with the outcome of that process.
In Galeshewe this past weekend, Ramaphosa said of his party and corruption, "We truly want to change our ways." Yet sitting in the audience on Thursday evening will be those who strut about on the public stage simply denying all corruption allegations levelled against them. They do so utterly without shame. Ramaphosa’s call for ‘the truth to set us free’ will thus also have to mean that justice is done and perpetrators are brought to book. Batohi will be instrumental in the search for justice for citizens as stories of politicians on the take increase.
On the legislative front Parliament will be focused on passing a Constitutional Amendment Bill dealing with expropriation without compensation. The National Assembly established an ad hoc committee to initiate and introduce a constitutional amendment and report back to the House by 31 March 2019. This deadline will be tight and one wonders whether it will be met or whether ANC MPs will seek to kick the contentious land issue into touch? Given that polling data indicates that land is low on the agenda of most South Africans, the ANC manifesto itself seems to relegate the issue. Ramaphosa will need to nuance the land issue and deal with the populism that the EFF, for instance, has championed on land.
The EFF for its part has threatened to disrupt Ramaphosa’s Sona if he does not provide a full explanation regarding the R500,000 his campaign at Nasrec received from Bosasa, via his son Andile. The president has been proactive in referring the matter to the Public Protector himself. The EFF’s currency is disruption far more than it is an interest in governance. During the Zuma years this took hold with their repeated cries of ‘Pay back the money!’ The EFF will probably find that it resonates somewhat differently in the case of a President Ramaphosa.
In the bigger scheme of things however, Ramaphosa will have to show that decisiveness on corruption, especially on how to deal with what citizens hear coming out of the myriad commissions of inquiry that are running concurrently. Related to this, ordinary crime is soaring and all surveys indicate that this is a key concern for South Africans. Ramaphosa will need to go beyond the platitudes when it comes to dealing with crime.
There is never anything slow about any South African political year and this year will prove to be no different. For those of us watching, it will be an opportunity for the president to be clear about his vision for our country, especially on the economy and job creation. That vision will have to be matched with the details of precisely how implementation will take place - we have to move beyond platitudes and set out the bold choices needed to kick-start the economy.
With our high unemployment rates and a 52% youth unemployment rate and burgeoning inequality, the economic vision must be one of inclusive, sustainable growth. How we achieve this will require novel thinking about youth unemployment programmes like the expansion of the YES programme, investing in education and dealing with errant teachers and principals, cleaning up corruption within the state and creating effective partnerships across government, business and labour which move beyond the R1.3 trillion investment and activates jobs.
State-owned enterprises are key to a sustainable economy. Given the state most of them are in, Ramaphosa will need to spell out how he will methodically deal with corruption, but also getting them back on track. Eskom is a crucial cog in the economic wheel and the country urgently needs to know how Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan will deal with the challenges these SOEs face and how we will increase our reliance on alternative sources of energy.
There is much to be done. We do not have the luxury of divisive politics.
The president’s job on Thursday will be to forget about the ANC and speak to us all as citizens and spell out a vision which goes beyond ‘Thuma mina!’ and which provides a practical plan of action for the crucial year ahead - even as he may feel the Brutus-like knife edging towards his back from people within his own party.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february