JUDITH FEBRUARY: Ramaphosa’s Sona needs a huge dose of honesty


In November last year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was challenged by her staff to record a clip of what her government had achieved in its first two years.

The challenge was to do so in less than two minutes.

Eventually Ardern, truly a leader in a class of her own, finished in two minutes 56 seconds.

She rattled off what had been done in simple language and with facts and figures, for instance ‘creating 92,000 jobs’.

South Africa is not New Zealand and our challenges are structural, historic and complex, yet this video provides a lesson in both simplicity and accountability.

Both are in short supply within the South African government.

If South Africa has reached what is now commonly called a ‘crisis’ of a political and economic nature, or rather a moment to ‘sieve’ or ‘distinguish’ truth from lies, solutions from obstacles and the rule of law from lawlessness, then the president may be best served to use his State of the Nation Address (Sona) next week to tackle some of the real issues South Africans care about.

In simpler modern political speak, it really ‘is about the economy, stupid!’

Millions remain jobless as the economy stagnates on the back of what is a mixture of government indecision, lethargy and policy confusion.

All the while, bubbling underneath the surface of our society is a deep anger and frustration that rears its head more often than we can fathom.

As one watches students burn down buildings at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, increased violence against women and children, we know that in South Africa violence begets violence.

We see too that this really can be a country of no consequences.

As we hear the testimony of Frank Chikane and Barbara Hogan at the inquest into Neil Aggett’s death, we understand the gaping wounds in this fractured society.

Next week, the president comes to town amidst the pomp and ceremony and jarring excess which is Sona.

It is an important constitutional moment where the president presents his plans to the legislature that, after all, is to exercise oversight over Ramaphosa’s executive.

It might be nice to see a toned-down version of this event, but politicians enjoy trappings.

Cape Town will therefore prepare for the armoured vehicles on Philip Kgosana Drive, the police deployed (and bored) in their thousands as working people flee the CBD before the veritable circus comes to town.

One wonders why this excessive deployment of the SANDF and the SAPS is necessary? Only a country deeply uncomfortable with itself would value such a show of force.

Given our economic woes, a scaled-down event would have been appropriate. That would probably have meant that Members of Parliament needed to ditch the ball gowns for ordinary attire. But that wouldn’t be South Africa.

Instead of yet another yawn-inducing and lengthy Sona next week, perhaps Ramaphosa can follow Ardern’s plain language report back?

It would serve to focus all our minds and also allow him to dispense with the clunky, uninspiring rhetoric of successive years.

Let us discard the summits, the inquiries, the panels and the variety of other strategic areas, one within the other like Russian babushka dolls, that are so favoured by Ramaphosa.

With the power of the Presidency he could try to set the tone in a short, sharp speech.

In an ideal world he would lay out the grim news with an honest rendering on the economy and why it is in the state that it is in.

He would then discuss state-owned enterprises and outline what is being done to get each of them on track.

Jobs should surely be at the heart of his speech - what has been done and what hard decisions will be taken to grow the economy.

The back and forth confusion regarding expropriation without compensation and the proposed folly that is the National Health Insurance fund should be explained carefully.

More than that, Ramaphosa will need to address these matters in a way that reignites confidence in his government and indeed in him.

Since he took office, much focus has been on securing R1.2 trillion investment over 5 years and restoring investor confidence.

Much of that has been dented given Eskom’s woes and what many regard as the sluggish implementation of economic reform.

Ramaphosa has promised greater investment in the mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors and the creation of 275,000 jobs per year.

Given South Africa’s unemployment rate of 10 million and rising, progress on this is crucial, yet like so much else appears hampered.

Added to that the water crisis and one understands the distress of farmers across the country.

The president has also made the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ a centrepiece of his economic and educational policy.

Yet, despite the annual puff about matric results, it is the quality of those passes which still require intense scrutiny.

All the evidence points to the abysmal failure of our education system when it comes to preparing South Africa’s youth for the changing world of work.

We are beset with challenges, with Ramaphosa’s ANC virtually unfit for purpose and so we must work smartly to salvage what is left of the tatters of the Zuma years.

The repeated promise is part and parcel of politics the world over.

South Africans have become cynical given the large-scale looting of the state over the past 10 years. There have been so many broken promises and the trust between citizens and the state is broken.

All around us we see the effects of a culture of mediocrity that is the mark of much of the state and creates a paralysis or a deep insouciance when it comes to the delivery of social services to the most vulnerable.

Ramaphosa cannot change that overnight but he should show us how he has inched us forward in the past year and then what needs to be done in 2020.

If Thuma mina! was a rallying cry which has somehow fallen flat given the political reality, a more workman-like call which Ramaphosa will be able to live up to over the next year is probably more appropriate.

Can Sona be a ‘turning point’ and a ‘decisive moment’ for decision-making, or will our political and social crises simply be prolonged through indecision, inaction and the ANC’s tedious divisions?

‘I want to be there when the people start to turn it around…’

That seems like a lifetime ago.

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' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february