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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Is our state really as resilient as the fynbos?

OPINION

It felt very long - because it was. For a full hour and 19 minutes, President Cyril Ramaphosa stood at the podium overlooking a virtually empty National Assembly. The 2021 State of the Nation Address will be remembered for the muted affair it was. No pomp and pageantry, pared down to its basics. This was welcomed and would hopefully be a harbinger of things to come.

As for President Ramaphosa, he looked rather weary, while simultaneously trying to be upbeat. Who could blame him, really - a global pandemic, an economy on its knees, vaccine delivery challenges and then some in his own party threatening to turn the knife in his back at next year’s ANC national elective conference.

The times do not call for a faint heart.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had the aloe ferox, Ramaphosa told us that we were resilient like fynbos. He told us we would rise but not before he established a few agencies - a new water agency, a national anti-corruption advisory council and a land and agrarian agency. One could almost hear the country’s collective sigh.

Who can blame us for being cynical and immediately thinking that the establishment of these agencies provides yet another opportunity for looting state coffers? And who could blame us for thinking that this is Ramaphosa providing his comrades with shiny objects to smooth over his re-election as ANC president and therefore as President of the country at the party’s elective conference at the end of 2022?

Overall, the speech was long and simply flat, struggling to connect with the lived experiences of most citizens. State of the nation addresses are really about tone and feel; what will inspire, lift and carry? On Thursday night, Ramaphosa struggled to do any of the three unfortunately.

READ: Ramaphosa's State of the Nation Address in full

To be fair, he reported back on his Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan and the COVID-19 R500 billion stimulus package.

He also outlined four priorities, which given the challenges we face, were self-evident: defeating COVID-19, accelerating economic recovery, inclusive growth and sustainable jobs and then rooting out corruption.

Ramaphosa placed a great deal of emphasis on localisation. In fact, these sectoral master plans emerged as one of the key focus areas of the speech.

In a spot of good news, the R350 COVID-19 support grant will continue for three months and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) Temporary Employee/Employer Scheme has been extended to 15 March.

On energy, Ramaphosa made important announcements and one truly hoped that the Minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, was listening. Ramaphosa announced that Eskom’s unbundling would continue and add 11,800 MW of renewable energy.

What we do know is that Ramaphosa’s government is committed to science - on the COVID-19 pandemic and then on climate change. We can be grateful that we do not live in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

Digital migration, which is falling way behind schedule but set to be completed by 2022, was mentioned. One wonders whether Ramaphosa truly believed his Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is capable of delivering anything other than inserting herself in glossy SABC advertisements. The same goes for many others incompetent ministers within his Cabinet.

Ramaphosa acknowledged that millions had fallen into desperate poverty and that inequality was on the rise. Dangerously so. He talked about infrastructure and his myriad commissions and partnerships. One wonders what ordinary South Africans thought about it all. No doubt the numbers he read aloud about stimulus within the economy and sectors targeted for growth are real and true. The problem is that our challenges are so staggering, especially as regards unemployment, that every effort feels like a pebble skimming the water’s surface. Ordinary citizens are just not feeling the shifts Ramaphosa talked about. The disconnect on Thursday night was palpable.

Ramaphosa’s job was always going to be impossible given the destruction of the Jacob Zuma years and the hollowed-out institutions. But he probably underestimated the enormity of the rebuilding process and the degree to which the state was stripped of capacity to deliver even the most basic of services.

As predicted, COVID-19 was the front and centre of the speech, with Ramaphosa recognising the crucial role healthcare and other frontline workers were playing as we continued to fight this pandemic.

There was some detail given about the rollout of the vaccine programme; 80,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be rolled out, beginning next week, out of the 9 million doses which have been procured. Twelve million doses of vaccine would be procured via the Covax facility and "other vaccines" would be procured via the African Union’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team Facility. A further 20 million doses will arrive via Pfizer in the second quarter.

How will we keep the Pfizer vials at the correct temperature, when will they arrive and how will provinces rollout these vaccines? We know the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived amid unprecedented security; we have become such a nation of thieves. What will happen to the AstraZeneca vaccine now? We are none the wiser after the speech.

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be the singular governance challenge of 2021. The right to health is enshrined in our Constitution and the ability of the state to roll out this vaccine will determine who lives and who dies. We can afford no missteps.

The challenge while listening to this speech, which also included more references to the "smart city" at Lanseria, was not only that we seem to have heard it all before but also that Ramaphosa had inhabited an alternative universe where the state delivered on the raft of promises and was not either incapable or corrupt.

He talked about the National School of Government, which was running courses on ethics in government. This almost sums up Ramaphosa’s approach - a course, an agency, a commission will sort it out. Unfortunately, no amount of courses will turn a corrupt elected official into an ethical one. The challenge lies squarely within the African National Congress (ANC) to ensure that those who rise within the ranks of the party are ethical.

Where this internal vetting does not work, one has a local government as dysfunctional and corrupt as ours. As we hear the daily stream of stories about corrupt local government, who truly believed the President when he declared, "the days of messing up [in local government] are over"? In some areas of our country, citizens themselves are fixing potholes and connecting water supply. So slogans like those simply ring hollow.

It was a positive step that performance agreements of individual ministers were on a website but really, who would fire the incompetent and the corrupt? That was rather more subject to the vagaries of the ANC’s own lost ethical compass than anything Ramaphosa would or should do.

Yet, apart from a cursory acknowledgment of things gone wrong, the President pressed ahead with his upbeat narrative. As someone drily remarked on Twitter, "Ramaphosa is the President who is willing but unable".

The speech was therefore a flat start to what would be one of the most challenging years in our post-apartheid history. Add to that the political compromises that came with the local government elections and it would feel again as if we were walking in treacle.

What Ramaphosa is right about, however, is that it is the ordinary citizens who keep this democracy going and who draw from a deep well of resilience to keep the economy alive.

But we cannot keep flying by the seat of our pants and deferring tough decisions to appease the sabre-rattling within the ANC. Speaking of which, Ramaphosa made no mention of Zuma’s attacks on our Constitution and his ANC colleagues’ equally disgraceful comments about the Zondo Commission. As head of state, he missed an opportunity to pin his colours to the mast of constitutionalism. Instead, he chose silence even as he stood in the people’s Parliament as part of his constitutional obligation.

Yet, insipid as Ramaphosa can be, the question always is "who else is in the room who could possibly lead our country?" DD Mabuza? The list of deplorables is endless.

And so here we are, South Africa, 2021, hanging in there, with strains of Thuma mina! far in the distance.

"I want to be there when the people start to turn it around…". Remember that?

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

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