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[OPINION] Sona 2019, a good night for the president

Ahead of this year’s State of the Nation address (Sona), President Ramaphosa exhorted us to be ‘hope merchants’.

For his part, Ramaphosa began with the Great Disarming Act. Rumours abounded this week that Julius Malema and the EFF would disrupt the president’s speech with demands for answers relating to the R500,000 Bosasa donation to the president’s 2017 campaign for the ANC presidency. Ramaphosa pre-empted some of the questions by requesting that the Public Protector investigate the matter. However because the EFF currency is disruption, they had threatened to disrupt Sona and not use the traditional question time or post-Sona debate to seek answers.

As Ramaphosa began his speech he masterfully needled both Malema and the DA’s Musi Maimane - he went off-script and ragged both men about their singing abilities. "Let’s form a band!" he said.

A shrewd start.

The speech proper started after this lighter moment - a rare one.

He began by referring to the period we have just emerged from - "a period of uncertainty and a loss of confidence and trust". Many South Africans could easily identify with those words.

In a pedestrian yet workman-like manner Ramaphosa outlined his five priority areas for South Africa - ones that all citizens could surely agree upon:

  • Inclusive economic growth;

  • Education;

  • Improving the lives of the poor;

  • The fight against corruption and state capture; and

  • Building a capable state.

The economy was always going to take centre stage with Ramaphosa reporting back on what has been done, namely the Presidential Jobs Summit, the YES programme and stimulating growth in the economy.

With the unemployment figure headed towards 10 million, Ramaphosa knows as well as anyone that this is a national crisis. The potential for massive social instability as a result of deepening poverty and unemployment is an ever-looming spectre on the South African horizon. Again, Ramaphosa repeated the promise of last year when he said 275,000 additional jobs would be created annually. A tall order indeed.

Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, land and the question of expropriation without compensation was neatly tucked into the mix but hardly took centre stage. All polling shows that it is nowhere near the top priority for the majority of South Africans. What the president promised was to support legislation that unambiguously set out the provisions for expropriation without compensation. The key question, of course, is whether this can be done by the time Parliament rises for the election recess towards the end of March? It’s highly unlikely.

Ramaphosa was clear to focus on agriculture, a growth sector of the economy that he had previously focused on, alongside mining and manufacturing.

As expected, he turned to state-owned enterprises and then more specifically to Eskom. Again, Ramaphosa being a man of process and deliberation, announced that Eskom would be split into three separate entities - generation, distribution and transmission. On the Eskom turnaround there is a caveat however; government will lead a process to engage with Eskom, labour and other stakeholders regarding this ‘transition’. Slowly, slowly and again as is typical of Ramaphosa, hitting the nail on the head regarding Eskom’s woes, identifying the challenges of poor governance, yet always seeking the inclusive process to provide himself with sufficient political cover.

That the president has education as one of his priorities should be a given. The education crisis we are in demands our singular attention. There can be no economic growth when young people are poorly educated. His focus on reading for understanding and early childhood development is crucial to sustainable economic growth, yet the focus on technology and the promise of digital workbooks to each child over the next six years seems unnecessary and too costly a burden.

Missing from the speech was that for teaching and learning to improve, principals need to lead effectively and teachers need to be in the classroom. Far too often the stranglehold Sadtu has on schools prevents proper disciplinary processes against errant teachers. This will also have to change if there is to be any improvement in our education system.

The president invoked the memory of Michael Komape and Lumka Mkhetwa who both died drowning in their faeces in a pit latrine toilet at their respective schools. Their deaths are a blot on our country and indicate a state that plays fast and loose with the lives of the poor and vulnerable. School infrastructure remains a challenge and one can only hope that greater progress is made to improve public schools, especially in poor and rural areas.

On health, the National Health Insurance Bill seems to be resuscitated in some form. Quite what it will look like remains to be seen.

But if this speech is remembered for its length (the president spoke for almost two hours) and its density, it will also be remembered for what he said about corruption. Pre-Sona there was a hope that the president would speak directly to a country weary of the corruption allegations arising out of the Zondo commission.

He did just that on Thursday night when he said, "that there is an urgent need to establish in the office of the NDPP an investigating directorate dealing with serious corruption and associated offences, in accordance with section 7 of the NPA Act. I will soon be promulgating a Proclamation that will set out the specific terms of reference of the Directorate. In broad terms, the Directorate will focus on the evidence that has emerged from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, other commissions and disciplinary inquiries. It will identify priority cases to investigate and prosecute and will recover assets identified to be the proceeds of corruption. The Directorate will bring together a range of investigatory and prosecutorial capacity from within government and in the private sector under an investigating director reporting to the NDPP."

Ramaphosa sought to undergird the independence of the NPA and furthermore undertook to ensure that resources would be put into an investigative directorate. We remember well how the Scorpions unit was disbanded as an act of sheer political interference years ago. Quite how the Hawks will work alongside this investigative directorate remains to be seen. The move, however, is a welcome one and will hopefully ensure speedier prosecutions of the corrupt. It would, of course, have been appropriate had the president at that point also announced progress on lifestyle audits when it comes to dealing with corruption.

As he announced the changes within the prosecuting authority, defiant yet ever charming, Ramaphosa repeated the words, "watch this space."

Former President Zuma did not attend this Sona - skulking and doubtless plotting his next move alongside the ‘radical transformers’ of the corrupt factions he leads within the ANC.

Ramaphosa seems determined to do the right thing and cut off the hand that feeds graft. He will need a spine of steel in the coming months to balance the need for ‘unity’ within the ANC ahead of an election and to make good on his promises to the nation.

It was a good night for the president. He is a man who understands the depths of our challenges. Last night he showed us that he was willing to clearly express what needs to be done to painstakingly rebuild that which has been broken. His challenge now is implementation and taking the political risks which some of his promises will surely need him to take.

As he again appealed to the better angels of our nature, our tolerance and our seemingly unique South African resilience, he admitted amidst the rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt that, "the task before us is formidable".

And so it is.

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

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