JUDITH FEBRUARY: No magic in president’s sober Sona


“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.”

This quote is attributed to Cicero, the Roman lawyer who himself railed against the excesses of the late Roman Republic in many of his prosecutions, though it is probably not his. Nevertheless, the words had resonance this week as the State of the Nation Address was upon us.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule announced the parliamentary chairs of committees amidst yet another media storm. Many of those announced have serious ethical question marks hanging over their names.

Faith Muthambi is now the Cogta chair. A known Zumarite, the inquiry into the SABC found that she was to be fired. She has frequently been seen supporting Jacob Zuma at his court appearances.

Mosebenzi Zwane, former Minerals Resources Minister, was fired by President Ramaphosa in February 2018 and was allegedly involved in the Vrede dairy farm corruption and also the controversial Gupta landing at Waterkloof Airforce Base.

And then there is Bongani Bongo, the former State Security Minister under former President Zuma who was plucked from backbench obscurity and then helpfully led a faction within the Justice portfolio committee to support current Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. He was also accused of trying to bribe the evidence leader in the parliamentary Eskom inquiry.

These are only three of the delinquents named to exercise oversight over the executive. One wonders how they will survive the often dull grind of parliamentary work for the next five years?

There are others like Tina Joemat-Petterson and Sifiso Buthelezi, the former deputy Finance Minister under Zuma who will now be responsible for technically passing the Budget. It must be said though that Parliament’s Budget Office is mostly dysfunctional and despite Parliament having finally garnered the power to change the Budget, this is unlikely to happen.

The group of artful dodgers is topped off by Supra Mahumapelo of the North West. He has been assigned as chair of the Tourism portfolio committee. All have protested their innocence when corruption allegations were levelled against them. That mercurial body, the ANC’s ‘integrity’ commission, has exonerated them all, it seems. Innocent until proven guilty, it says. Magashule was clear to point that out.

And so, with a bunch of committee chairs like these, did Ramaphosa need enemies from the outside this week? Clearly Magashule has set out to undermine Ramaphosa’s agenda. He is being surprisingly crude and transparent about it, which may well see him hoist on his own petard. The narrative will continue; only the context or factual scenarios will change, of that we can be sure.

And so, a nation weary of promises waited to hear what newly elected Ramaphosa would say on a clear Cape Thursday evening. Despite the announcements of cuts in the Sona budget, the streets were still lined with hundreds of policemen and women looking bored, military personnel wandered the streets and barricades were up. By afternoon most workers were racing to escape the circus. There was no need for this excess. President Ramaphosa must know that it is within his power to change these ceremonies and scale them down. He ought to really have wandered in from Tuynhuys, the anthem played and the speech made in an hour. The pomp is unnecessary and besides, what president truly wants to drive down the streets of a city where he is met only by barricades and no ordinary people?

In February, Ramaphosa came to Parliament with five focus areas: inclusive economic growth, education, improving the lives of the poor, dealing with corruption and building a capable state. A pretty formidable list even if one simply stops at area two. Given the dire state of the economy, it was always going to be difficult to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Ramaphosa struck a more sober tone this time as he spoke of the extreme challenges our country faces - specifically in relation to unemployment and a lack of growth. Indeed, as he mentioned, youth unemployment is a crisis. Unemployment, he said rightly, was “the concern that rises above all else and which affects us all”. It was right too that the thrust of the speech dealt with the ailing, flailing economy. There was a desperate note in Ramaphosa’s voice as he spoke about our growth scenario.

To this end, he seemed determined to resuscitate the National Development Plan that, like many of government plans, seems to be gathering dust somewhere.

The speech itself felt a little Mbeki-esque. There were now seven areas of focus and not February’s five, and within those there were five fundamental goals to be achieved in the next 10 years. They are: poverty, inequality and unemployment, growing the economy, 2 million youth in employment in 10 years’ time, education (that every 10-year old will be able to ‘read for meaning’), and halving crime within 10 years.

No-one can fault the president for focusing on these areas and his own commitment to the issues is clearly sincere. There is also no doubting that he has a keen understanding of the content of his speech, unlike his hapless, corrupt predecessor. But again, it all felt like we have been here before with President Mbeki circa 2005, with Special Economic Zones, unleashing growth in productive sectors, potential infrastructure investment, cutting the ‘red tape’ as regards SMMEs and reducing the cost of doing business, leveraging tourism to create jobs and then trying to find pathways to work for young people.

Given the ‘wasted years’ under Zuma, is it any surprise though that we are stuck in this rut? As Ramaphosa said, we have to build this capable state to ensure that we do build the South Africa we all want.

There is no proverbial silver bullet. The challenge for Ramaphosa will be on every possible level. Leaving aside attempts from within his own party to derail his efforts, he has to deal with Eskom. We know that yet another bailout is on the way. But what of the other SOEs?

While Eskom may be ‘too big to fail’, SAA, Prasa and others are an equal drain on the fiscus. Ramaphosa knows that as well as anyone. It’s probably a case of eating the elephant one chunk at a time. He has no other choice, really. Perhaps referring to Eskom and potentially dividing it into three parts - generation, distribution and transmission - he was clear to say at the outset that difficult decisions will have to be made and not everyone will like them. Indeed, the question is how, apart from the bailout, will Eskom be ‘saved’, if indeed it can be?

On education, again Ramaphosa is well-meaning and his focus on basic education is exactly where it should be, but we are all well aware of the stumbling block which Sadtu is to quality education for the poor, black child. Its members eschew accountability and there appear to be no repercussions for errant teachers and school management. That is but one issue plaguing our schools. The research has been done - action is what is needed and it goes beyond the coaching and support of teachers Ramaphosa suggests. Having said that, any ‘massive reading campaign’ in South Africa would be welcome. A country of readers of decent literature must surely thrive?

Ramaphosa wants to pivot to global debates and his mention of climate change, renewables and clean energy for economic growth cannot go unnoticed. We need to start talking far more about climate - not only pollution, general filth in our cities and how to deal with this, but also about the bigger debates of the future. Hence Ramaphosa’s vision of a new city. All’s the pity that people have now become obsessed with the idea barely minutes after the speech was done.

New minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia De Lille declared herself ready to start building it. It is a vision and biblically speaking, where there is no vision the people perish; yet one cannot help but think that this is a pipe dream. One can only imagine ANC cadres getting their hands on the filthy lucre of tenders. But let the president dream. It’s hardly going to impact on us materially.

One does feel that Ramaphosa may have perhaps strategically toned down the anti-corruption rhetoric, though there is no doubt that the slow work of rebuilding the National Prosecuting Authority continues and the setting up of the SIU special tribunal will continue. This is good news and what happens as regards the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture will depend on Judge Zondo’s final report and recommendations. However, the NPA needs further resources to ensure swift prosecutions of those involved in state capture. Those prosecutions need not and should not wait for the completion of the commission’s work.

The president was unequivocal about the SA Reserve Bank and underlined its constitutional mandate. This was an important part of the speech as Magashule and the Public Protector looked on. Both have inserted themselves into the debate on the SARB and in the Public Protector’s case, she has shown her political slip.

A State of the Nation Address should inspire and balance detail with an over-arching vision. Ramaphosa has a vision of a country he wants. It is difficult to disagree with his words or indeed his sentiment. We all want to build the partnerships he calls for across business, government, labour and civil society. We all want young people to be employed and to thrive as entrepreneurs and for land to be accessed with fairness and equity. And we all want a country where injustice is righted and where a capable state does not allow children to die in pit latrine toilets or people to die waiting for a doctor. But that vision is very far from being realised. There is again no doubt that Ramaphosa knows this. Because the ultimate question still remains - ‘how will these plans be realised?’ How will they come to fruition when the bad actors are within his own party and within the state? Even with the best will in the world, greater political capital and a half-capable state, Ramaphosa would have a difficult time turning this ship around. That is simply the harsh reality.

Things are grim and so one might have preferred three priority areas for us all to rally around - that which can be written in a few pages and delivered in quick time. The economy (focus on SOEs), education and land reform (given its potential to ignite emotion and instability) come to mind.

But that was not to be. So, here we are with the workman-like result of five fundamental goals wrapped within seven focus areas. As Ramaphosa said, quoting Ben Okri:

‘We could use the new era

To clean our eyes,

To see the world differently,

To see ourselves more clearly.’

We could - and indeed our future could well be “greater than our past”. But it will take much work from all of us. Importantly, the work must include building alliances and then action through implementation. The public trust in the rebuilding project is faltering, which places further pressure on Ramaphosa.

And so here we stand again - having to rebuild - some maybe more resolute than others, however.

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