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Ramaphosa's loss for words may be a good thing

2019-06-25 15:23
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Gallo Images/Sowetan/Esa Alexander)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Gallo Images/Sowetan/Esa Alexander)

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ANALYSIS: Can Ramaphosa make good on his seven SONA priorities?

2019-06-20 18:19

Watch live as News24's Tshidi Madia and Pieter du Toit unpack President Cyril Ramaphosa's first State of the Nation Address of the 6th Parliament. Expectations were high for Ramaphosa to deliver a speech that inspired the nation and the business community.WATCH

Ramaphosa's February SONA was comprehensive and outlined crucial plans of action over the course of the year and presumably after he had secured a mandate. This could be why he felt no need to add detail to last week's SONA, writes Shingai Mutizwa-Mangiza.

The time for talking is over. It is time for action. These were the commanding words of President Cyril Ramaphosa as he delivered his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) but his first as the nation's top elected official.

The speech itself began on a poignant note by acknowledging the 106 years anniversary of the enactment of the Natives Land Act of 1913. This particular piece of legislation saw the then newly established union government draw up legislation that would lead to the first mass phase land alienation amongst black South Africans before the onset of apartheid in 1948.

Although the president would affirm that much had been accomplished since the advent of 1994, he was quick to acknowledge that the progress made thus far since the adoption of the National Development Plan (NDP) was unsatisfactory and that there was a real danger that Vision 2030 would not be realised. As he cautioned that painful choices had to be made as the limitations on the fiscus made it singularly difficult to "do everything at one time" he seemed to be making a call for austerity.

In setting the broad contours of his administration's policy framework, the president highlighted seven key areas:

  • Economic transformation and job creation
  • Education, skills and health
  • Consolidating the social wage through reliable and quality basic services
  • Spatial integration, human settlements and local government
  • Social cohesion and safe communities
  • A capable, ethical and developmental state
  • A better Africa and world

Other notable items mentioned in the address were: the creation of 2 million new jobs over the next 10 years, the restoration of the NDP, the re-assertion of the South African Reserve Bank's autonomy, notwithstanding the Nasrec resolutions seemingly to the contrary, the revitalisation of the productive sectors of the economy, the establishment of a Gender-based Violence and Femicide Council and the R3.9bn support to be given to new emerging farmers and the construction of a new city replete with new infrastructure and highly developed transportation systems.

The president's address, which came at a time of heightened anxiety and great anticipation, was a display of cautious optimism tempered by some sobering facts. What started out as a call for austerity ended with extravagant talk of new cities and bullet trains. Interestingly, however, the president was quite guarded with his words in comparison to the SONA he delivered in February this year.

Indeed, whilst the president provided the nation with salient details of "what shall be done" his speech was scant on the "how it shall be done". There were some notable omissions. For instance, he did not discuss the individual fate of the each of the country's state-owned enterprises. Although he did discuss Eskom in some detail, particularly ongoing concerns about the R230bn that the energy utility would need over the next 10 years and the appropriation bill that was planned towards that end. However, there was no mention of the progress in unbundling it.

Despite having begun his speech on the emotive issue of land the president did not say much other than that they had received the report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture, which was due to be presented to Cabinet. In many ways the speech could have been misconstrued as being underwhelming and yet that may not have been the case at all.

As taxpaying citizens who had been forced to listen to the SONA speeches of yesteryear from previous administrations with all their elaborate details South African had become accustomed to getting intricate details on how these administrations were going realise programmes. Given this trend over the past 25 years and given the fact that the economy has contracted by some 3.2% and unemployment is at an all time high of 27.6% one could be forgiven for wanting to have some sort of insight as to how he intends to go about it. It begs the question why the president was being economical with his words.

There are three possible reasons. The first could be that the president, having already pronounced extensively on the key areas of concern in the February SONA saw no reason to do so now, as the plans of action were presumably the same, given that the challenges have not changed since then.

The second possible reason is that the president is conscious of the ramifications of full disclosure and the likely impact it could have, both within his party and the alliance, thus deciding to play his cards closer to his chest. The third reason could just be that the president is being true to his words that the time for talking is indeed over and the rest should be left to a "watch this space" sort of situation.

I am inclined to believe that it is a combination of the first two options for the following reasons. As already stated, the president's February SONA was comprehensive and outlined crucial plans of action for his administration over the course of the year and presumably after he had secured a mandate.

Secondly, keen observers of the president and the ANC would have noted that no sooner had the president made it known to the public that government was intent on restructuring Eskom into three entities than the country was plunged into darkness. Whether this was by design or default is not entirely clear. However it may have signalled to the president and his allies that the vested interests in the energy utility were not going to make it easy to restructure. The country was made painfully aware during the testimonies given at the Zondo commission that Eskom was one of the centre-pieces in the Gupta engineered state capture project.

Whatever the reasons behind his unusually terse address there can be no doubt that the president has his work cut out for him. It may very well be his strategy to communicate the government's action plans elaborately via ministerial policies by putting his money where he is mouth is, so to speak, through actual budget allocations and expenditure. However if he is to retain the public's confidence in his administration and his own leadership abilities he is going to have to find some way of getting his message across as succinctly and as decisively as possible.

The recent conflicting statements from Luthuli House and the Union Buildings surrounding the status of the SARB are clearly indicative that even policy is a site of factional conflicts. Ramaphosa's dream of a vibrant and industrious South Africa is by no means impossible. Given South Africa's resource endowment and robust institutional and regulatory framework it is a plausible ambition. However, unless he is able to tame those forces that are hellbent on undermining the realisation of his agenda the president can count on more sleepless nights as heavy is the head that wears the crown.

- Shingai Mutizwa-Mangiza is a political analyst and formerly a postdoctoral fellow in the Political Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    eskom  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  sona 2019
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