JUDITH FEBRUARY: This is what we need to hear from President Ramaphosa’s Sona
Is there anyone who will miss the annual absurdity which sees politicians striding the red carpet dressed up, some a milliner’s nightmare, only to walk into the parliamentary chamber to fulfill their constitutional obligation?
No-one will miss the road closures, the overblown security and Cape Town workers fleeing the city before to prevent being caught up in the security cordon around Parliament. That cordon has become larger over the years. Gone are the days when one could sneak into the State of the Nation Address (Sona) via the side entrance near the Company’s Gardens and wave a pass at the policeman stationed at the gate.
And no-one will miss being exposed to Cape Town’s February heat.
It is entirely fitting that this year’s Sona is to be pared down to its basics, given the COVID-19 pandemic. If some of President Ramaphosa’s Cabinet are unable to adhere to lockdown regulations (yes, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and Lindiwe Zulu), then at least they can be compelled to on Thursday.
Perhaps it will be the harbinger of a smaller Sona for the future?
Usually there is a buzz about what the President will say and how he will capture the mood of the country.
This year, of course, has a deflated feel about it already. Last year we survived (barely) a year of COVID-19 restrictions, an economy in tatters and nearly 2.2 million people who lost their jobs. South Africa remains in lockdown, albeit adjusted, and we are collectively feeling the economic and social impact of the pandemic.
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.
Added to this the confusion regarding the efficacy of the recently arrived AstraZeneca vaccine and the ongoing corruption within the state, and it all feels somewhat out of control. But this is South Africa and it was ever thus.
So, what does President Ramaphosa - who himself seems wearier after every COVID-19 ‘family meeting’ - say to us? How does he speak to a country deeply cynical of his government’s ability to deliver on even the most basic of promises? A brief look back at his short presidency and it makes for some sobering and disappointing reading.
The mood is far from the upbeat ‘Thuma mina!’ speech he made as he took office in 2018. That enthusiasm has dissipated and there is an urgent sense that there has been enough talk.
In 2019, Ramaphosa rightly said that unemployment was “the concern that rises above all else and which affects us all”.
In his 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 could 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 with a repeat of what he has said in the past. The laundry list of ‘things to do’ is unhelpful. What is needed is an honest rendering of our challenges. Given the strangeness of the times, the first thing on everyone’s mind as Ramaphosa comes to Parliament will be the implementation of the vaccine plan.
While the COVID-19 infection rate has reduced considerably since the peak of the ‘second wave’ in December, Professor Salim Abdool Karrim of the Ministerial Advisory Committee has already warned of a ‘third wave’. The next period will require continued vigilance from us all.
During his briefings, Ramaphosa has become used to tossing numbers about as regards the vaccine rollout. But really, what South Africans need now is a plan detailing the specifics of a vaccine rollout plan.
When will vaccines be received? How many will be received and how do we plainly put, get jabs in arms? This detail is important so that we are able to hold government to account for a transparent rollout process. This governance and health challenge will test our resilience more than anything else in the recent past.
The cynic in all of us was probably asking how a country which cannot roll out emergency funds to the poorest in our society is actually going to get the vaccine rollout right? Mostly though we thought, “do not steal the vaccines” and do not allow middlemen (and women) to profit from what should be a moment of national solidarity.
Surely after the PPE-related corruption during the hard lockdown in March last year, we would have learnt our lesson? Hardly. This is a country in which the president’s own spokesperson has been fingered in PPE-related corruption, along with her husband. An array of ANC politicians stand similarly accused. So is it any surprise then that that the ANC’s ‘Progressive Business Forum’ (there is nothing ‘progressive’ about it) is pushing for its members who help fund the ANC to gain vaccine procurement contracts? As National Treasury Director-General Dondo Mogajane said, “This is not an opportunity to make a buck”. He is right.
This is a life and death moment - we cannot afford anything other than the transparent rollout of vaccines to all South Africans who want a vaccine. Can the Ramaphosa government and the ANC deliver this? Judgment is reserved.
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.
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.
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.
But aside from dealing with a global pandemic and its discontents, Ramaphosa has another crucial issue to deal with in this year’s Sona. It is about the fundamental pillars on which this society is based - the Constitution.
Last week former President Jacob Zuma declared that he would not adhere to the ConCourt ruling stating that he is compelled to appear before the Zondo commission of inquiry on state capture. He alleges the commission was designed purely to ensure that he is the sad scapegoat.
Moreover, and in what is perhaps more sinister, he accuses the ConCourt of political bias. It’s all a conspiracy and the courts are acting in concert with dark forces to ensure only one thing: the demise of Zuma. In this narrative, Zuma becomes first victim and then martyr. We have been here before with Zuma - remember his rape trial?
Corrupt to the very core, Zuma is predictably using every obvious trick in the populist’s playbook to stay out of prison.
The litmus test for the Zondo Commission and, by implication, for our constitutional order, is obvious, should Zuma fail to appear before the Commission on 15 February.
Aiding and abetting Zuma is ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who similarly sees no wrong in Zuma flouting the Constitution. There is truly no honour amongst thieves. Joining the unseemly fray is the King of Spectacle, EFF leader Julius Malema. Doubtless Malema sees some cheap political gain out of the cup of tea he had with Zuma at Nkandla.
Plainly put, if Zuma defies the Zondo Commission and the ConCourt, such an act of grave impunity will be a direct assault on our democracy.
President Ramaphosa sounded as limp as he possibly could when he spoke in Soweto on Friday, after being asked about former President Zuma’s statements of defiance in relation to the Zondo Commission and the ConCourt.
Ramaphosa said, ‘‘Let's give former President Jacob Zuma time and space, people are counselling him, all of us need time to reflect and think. In life it is always best to think about matters carefully and deeply before coming to a rushed conclusion.”
No-one needs ‘time and space’ to think about whether they will obey the law or not. This really is no time for Ramaphosa to equivocate. He is head of state and needs to stand firm in his defence of the rule of law, even as his feckless party cannot. Sona is his opportunity to underline the commitment of the government he leads to the Constitution.
We know Ramaphosa is under pressure from an array of forces within the ANC itself. He can choose to expend all his political capital kowtowing to the corrupt anti-constitutionalists, or he can stand with ordinary South Africans in asserting the guardrails of our constitutional democracy. We should not underestimate the importance of this moment and a potential assault on our democracy by Zuma and his band of corrupt cronies.
If Thuma mina! was a rallying cry which has somehow fallen flat given the political reality, a short, sharp speech on these few important issues is more appropriate this year.
2021 should be the year in which we cease prolonging our various crises through indecision, inaction and the ANC’s tedious and destructive divisions. It is also the year in which we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the adoption of our Constitution. Let us not be limp or lily-livered in its defence.
Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and 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