JUDITH FEBRUARY: Sona 2020 can't be business as usual


It is said that Benjamin Franklin, on leaving the constitutional convention of 1787, told a passerby that the Framers of the US constitution had produced “a republic, if you can keep it”.

In some senses, as we reflect on the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the subsequent crafting of our constitutional democracy, Mandela may well have said, ‘A constitutional democracy, if you can keep it’.

Ironically our constitutional democracy, while tested severely under President Zuma, continues to weather the storms of our country’s destructive politics and politicians.

No doubt as President Ramaphosa comes to Parliament on Thursday he will invoke the memory of Madiba and the moment in history when it seemed that through Madiba’s sheer moral force, everything was possible.

Yet Ramaphosa faces a citizenry weary of promises and an economy virtually on its knees.

The mood is far from the upbeat ‘Thuma mina!’ speech he made as he took office in 2018. Today much of the enthusiasm has dissipated and there is an urgent sense that there has been enough talk.

The time for action and hard decisions is now, whether it is on Eskom, SAA or the economy in general. And with unemployment at 29.1% and growth prospects at an anemic 0.8/9%, our country is in crisis.

In 2019, Ramaphosa rightly said that unemployment was “the concern that rises above all else and which affects us all.”

In his June post-election State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa went on to present seven areas of focus instead of five - and within those there were five fundamental goals to be achieved in the next 10 years.

They were: poverty, inequality and unemployment, growing the economy, two million youth in employment in 10 years’ time, education (that every 10-year-old will be able to “read for meaning”) and halving crime in 10 years’ time. No one can fault the president for focusing on these areas for they are self-evident.

While we all know that there is no proverbial silver bullet to our multiple crises, Ramaphosa simply cannot come before Parliament on Thursday with a repeat of what he has said in the past. It simply cannot be ‘business as usual’, given the enormity of our challenges.

The laundry list is not helpful. What is needed is an honest rendering of our challenges and why we are in the situation we are in?

From there, it may well help Ramaphosa if he chose to emphasise the top three challenges for South Africa – whether it be Eskom, state-owned enterprises, youth unemployment or education, he should take his pick. That would serve to focus all our minds on what is to be achieved this year. It would hopefully also serve to focus the mind of those in his party who choose to stymie progress in favour of their narrow personal interest.

A State of the Nation Address should inspire and balance detail with an over-arching vision. Ramaphosa gave us his vision in 2018. 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.

The question is how? Ramaphosa needs to give us a short, sharp answer to that or he seriously risks squandering what is left of the confidence citizens have in this presidency.

After that, the only thing that is needed is action. Ramaphosa will be judged by citizens on results alone.

The time for talk is well and truly over - or there will be no republic to keep.

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