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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Sona a mixture of the good, the bad & the ugly

opinion

What would a State of the Nation Address (Sona) be without the predictable threats of disruption from the EFF? It is, after all, part of the politics of spectacle that much of ‘Brand EFF’ is built on. The EFF is all rage and very little substance, all politicking and little principle. As a political tactic, rage has, however, become somewhat tired.

As President Ramaphosa rose to deliver his speech, the EFF started repeatedly raising scurrilous and vexatious points of order. They were two-fold and related to the presence of FW De Klerk in the House and then the predictable call for Ramaphosa to fire Pravin Gordhan.

The animus towards Gordhan is startling and predictable at the same time. The rage directed at De Klerk was simply puerile. De Klerk has attended previous Sonas without fuss. That the EFF chose to object to his presence this time was simply cheap opportunistic politics. Their passions no know restraint.

Our past is contested and our transition was fraught. The further we move away from 1994, the deeper our levels of inequality and poverty, the more contested our past becomes it seems. History will judge De Klerk’s role in that transition.

One gets the sense though that had Madiba been sitting in the gallery, the EFF would have called him a ‘sell-out’ too. After all, it has been a rallying cry of most who engage in ‘Fallist’ politics. The reasons leading to the negotiated settlement were complex and layered. Compromises and mistakes were made. Nelson Mandela himself admitted that. But, we should be able to have a debate about justice and reconciliation in ways that are constructive and respectful. Sona 2020 was not the moment to relitigate the past.

"Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument," Desmond Tutu always implored. The EFF might do well to ponder those words.

One could not help but wonder what Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, and Springbok rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, thought as they sat in the gallery reserved for special guests. They have conducted themselves with such grace and have shown the world the very best of who we are.

In their presence Malema and his merry band of disruptors seemed politically small, spoiling for a fight.

But Speaker Thandi Modise clearly did not want to provide the EFF with the ‘white shirt’ moment. Images of ‘white shirt’ security violently removing EFF MPs still haunt former Speaker Baleka Mbete’s troubled time in that position. Strategically, the EFF’s disruption was an own goal. It galvanised the ANC and the opposition and left the EFF isolated.

While all the drama unfolded in real time, a photograph circulated on social media. It was one of Modise warmly greeting FW De Klerk on the National Assembly steps. Given the past and what Modise endured, it was particularly instructive. Who knows what went through Modise’s head as she leaned in to greet De Klerk, but it was a moment laden with poignancy and a reminder of the countless acts of grace and resilience that paved the way for a constitutional democracy.

So finally, and in stark contrast to the EFF’s rabble-rousing, the President took to the podium displaying the dignity of the office and eventually started his speech. As he began, Ramaphosa paid tribute to Basil February as yet another reminder of the sacrifices that were made for freedom and the blood that was spilt.

"As we gather to reflect on the state of our nation, we are joined by the family of Basil February, a courageous young freedom fighter who lost his life in Zimbabwe in the Wankie campaign of 1967. For half a century his resting place, like those of several of his comrades, has, until now, remained unknown.

"His contribution, his sacrifice, has never been forgotten…we gather here humbled by the memories of those men and women who gave their lives for our freedom, deeply aware of the great responsibility we carry to realise their dreams."

February’s life (and tragic death) stands in sharp contrast to the faux revolutionaries which the EFF are, dressed theatrically in red overalls. As Ramaphosa reminded us, "we must focus on what unites, rather than what divides us".

Disruptions aside, President Ramaphosa was always going to have a tough night. All around him are South Africans who are weary of load shedding, rampant violent crime, an economy that is in dire straits and unemployment at a staggering 29.1%.

Sometimes it all seems overwhelming, especially when Ramaphosa seems to be moving at a snail’s pace to dig us out of the hole we are in. Despite the fact that Ramaphosa is more popular than his party, the recent Citizen Surveys poll found that only 28% of citizens surveyed were happy with the direction the country was taking.

Ramaphosa therefore came to Parliament with a loud clamour for him to act on just about everything. Last year’s post-election Sona was awash with focus areas and goals; all too many to even remember. It lacked the lilt and tenor of the first ‘Thuma mina!’ speech in which he roused us all to be the people who would ‘turn it around’.

Ramaphosa clearly tried to appease his critics by largely doing away with the myriad of goals and focus areas to fold it all under the umbrella of ‘inclusive growth’. This made for a less unwieldy and a better-articulated speech.

This time Ramaphosa started by giving notice of our ‘stark reality’ of unemployment, specifically youth unemployment and grinding poverty. Here was the reality check we needed. Our public finances are under severe strain, Ramaphosa acknowledged and he talked about the ‘mistakes we ourselves have made’ and referenced state capture and corruption.

The speech felt like a mixture of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ and is the story of a country in which incredible success and ingenuity live alongside the sheer awfulness of burning, violence and degradation.

Probably the most interesting and important part of the speech related to energy. Ramphosa spoke of allowing municipalities to generate their own power, the implementation of the Integrated Resource Plan of 2019 and of an expanded energy mix. He also spoke of the work that was continuing to divide Eskom into three parts, viz, generation, distribution and transmission.

He went on to say that, "The social partners – trade unions, business, community and government – are committed to mobilising funding to address Eskom’s financial crisis in a financially sustainable manner. They would like to do this in a manner that does not put workers pensions at risk and that does not compromise the integrity of the financial system". He acknowleged the frustration that comes with load shedding and came clean to say it would be with us for a while yet.

Ramaphosa knows better than anyone what a drag Eskom is on our finances. Of course, he also knows that there is nervousness about potential job losses, hence his invoking of the social compact.

Social compacts between government, business and labour was a sustained theme throughout the speech. Ironically, however, the reality is that Ramaphosa has seemed almost reticent to lead on building this social compact to shore up his own position within his party.

Building the alliances across society would go a long way in allowing Ramaphosa the space he needs to take hard decisions on state-owned enterprises and the economy. It would isolate those within his party who champion ‘radical economic transformation’ which has just become a catch-phrase for ‘radical looting’, really.

It’s unclear whether that penny has convincingly dropped for Ramaphosa and whether he will expend his political capital on building more formidable alliances outside of his party in 2020? Those need to go beyond Nedlac, even as Ramaphosa is a leader given to process and structure. He needs to assiduously build his constituency with business and civil society alongside him.

The promises on energy have the potential to significantly ramp up our power producing capacity. As one looked at Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, the key question is whether he will deliver on what the President has promised? Indeed, one could ask that of all Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. Do they have the energy and commitment to deliver on the tasks set before them? Thus far it has been a mixed bag. Ramaphosa’s success depends as much on those around him as on his own commitment to task.

Added to that, his own party’s ability to throw a spanner in the works and create policy confusion is a constant source of frustration for ordinary citizens watching the passing show that is ANC policy ‘debates’.

On the National Health Insurance, Ramaphosa skirted concerns on precisely how this fund would work. Of course, the NHI is driven by Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize who seems to be forging ahead without fully acknowledging the difficulties which may arise. There is also a deep sense of mistrust in government’s ability ro run a fund as large of the proposed NHI fund. This is especially so given the rampant corruption within state-owned enterprises.

While Ramaphosa expressed that he was pleased at the ‘enthusiastic’ response the NHI received from ordinary citizens across the country, that hardly addresses more fundamental concerns about a lack of certainty, specifically for doctors and how they would slot into this system?

It is understandable that South Africans in public hearings would support the NHI. Our health services are crumbling and the poor are mostly at the receiving end of services which are substandard. These are life and death issues if one is poor. Yet, the devil is always in the detail and Ramaphosa did not make mention of concerns raised thus far.

The same applies to the land issue which appeared to be almost cursorily dealt with. The constitutional amendment was mentioned, as was the proposed Expropriation Bill. Yet there was no clarity on the confusion on executive powers on expropriation which arose after the recent ANC NEC lekgotla. Again, these details matter.

On SAA he was refreshingly candid when he said, "The extent of capture, corruption and mismanagement in SOEs is best demonstrated at South Africans Airways, which was placed in business rescue late last year".

We are told the business rescue practitioners will unveil a plan for SAA soon. Yet, what Ramaphosa failed to say was that he and his minister would not intervene in the process as we have seen just days earlier. If the business rescue process is to work optimally, then the business rescue practitioners should be left to do the work they have been charged to do.

The President rightly focussed on the crisis that is youth unemployment and in his statement there are seeds of a realisable plan with the launch of five sites in five provinces to provide three million young people with active support, information and work readiness training. Flexible short courses in fast-growing sectors are planned, along with measures to support youth entrepreneurship.

The challenge, of course, is that in a lo- growth economy, creating jobs is difficult. So even when Ramaphosa talks about the Auto Master Plan and the Clothing and Textiles Master Plan, it feels like treading water. This is because the challenge is simply so great.

The speech also contained the usual ‘dreaming spires’ of smart cities, tablets, robotics and coding. To add to the mix this year was mention of a sovereign wealth fund (a real pipe dream) and a new university in Ekurhuleni focussing on science and innovation.

On corruption and state capture we heard of the determination in relation to dealing with the scourge. One raises the eyebrow at another national anti-corruption strategy which feels like déjà vu from the Mbeki years. Much of the ‘fight against corruption’ is out of Ramaphosa’s hands as the National Prosecuting Authority seeks to fulfill its madate under severe constraints.

Finally the report into the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) will be relased within days and will provide welcome clarity on the state of this important entity. It is also part of the larger ‘clean up’ of state entities.

Everything Ramaphosa promised hinges on implementation. South Africa has no more time to squander on navel-gazing and inaction. We also don’t have the luxury of watching the ANC indulge in dead ideological battles and factionalism while our economic progress is stymied.

Watching Ramaphosa last night, he seemed a mixture of weary and determined. This was an important speech and its implementation will define the rest of his Presidency.

Listening to him however, one thing is also clear - whatever we think of Ramaphosa’s ability to do as he says and whatever other criticisms we may have of his Presidency, he remains our best hope of getting things done.
The alternatives are simply too unpalatable to mention.

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

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