President Cyril Ramaphosa provided direction out of the dark, depressing and dingy tunnel we have been in since 2009
In the Barack Obama years many on this side of the Atlantic looked across the ocean with great envy.
The president of the US was not just a leader. He was a man of ideas, brimming with thoughts about how to change the world.
His state of the union addresses were followed as closely as major sporting events.
Last Monday his much less illustrious successor gave his third state of the union address since becoming president in January 2017.
The successor is a rather strange creature who could provide the first tangible evidence that a reptilian species is secretly running the world.
This year’s state of the union address was typical Donald Trump: blustering, divisive, scaremongering, narcissistic, delusional, jingoistic and hallucinatory.
It was a “how to row back the march of human progress” lecture.
The speech’s only saving grace was that it was entertaining in its madness and incredibility and in its large doses of self-love.
Three days later, in a city on the southern tip of the African continent, a very different class of address was delivered.
South Africa was given a sense of what it could be and how it could begin to undo the damage wrought by the nine difficult, wasted years of the previous head of state.
We have thankfully moved on from the giddy Ramaphoria period of early last year and are now in a better position to judge President Cyril Ramaphosa on his own record and ability, rather than in comparison to the psychopath he replaced.
His second state of the nation address (Sona) – which was, in fact, his first real one because last year’s was delivered about 24 hours after he was sworn in – was difficult to fault.
The general sense around the parliamentary precinct and throughout the country was that it provided direction out of the dark, depressing and dingy tunnel we have been in since 2009.
So warped was our sense of normality that we would tune into the Sona and parliamentary sessions in expectation of drama and violence and to laugh at the verbal stumbles of the man in charge.
So it was no surprise that the Economic Freedom Fighters’ threats of disruption piqued interest and got South Africans excited that we would get a glimpse of the bad old days.
It was no surprise that there were many who felt let down and cheated by Julius Malema’s crowd for not providing the drama and thrills to which we had become accustomed.
In May, when he begins his first proper term as president, Ramaphosa will deliver what is now being called the “real” Sona.
But this is an unfair diminution of what must rank as one of his best performances in public leadership.
The importance of last week’s speech was that it marked our return to normality. It was believable, delivered by someone with credibility.
Yes, promises will be broken and targets not fully met but it will not be because the person who set out the path was lying and filling in pages so that he could get prime-time attention.
It was realistic and there was a prioritisation of the challenges we, as a country, face.
IT’S THE ECONOMY STUPID
Read in its totality, the overarching theme of this Sona was about getting us out of the economic quagmire.
Be it on tackling infrastructure backlogs, dealing with the country’s energy crisis, fixing state-owned enterprises, breaking stifling concentration, focusing on early childhood development and reintegrating South Africa into the community of respectable nations, the purpose was to get the economy’s engine vrooming.
A temptation that Ramaphosa and his inner circle will have to avoid is claiming easy and premature victories and engaging in magic tricks.
Last year’s big investment and jobs summits were important milestones in terms of optics, boosting confidence and forging social compacts.
However, it was wrong to trumpet them as breakthroughs as it was last week when Ramaphosa told the nation that the agreements reached at these gatherings would “when fully implemented ... nearly double the number of jobs being created in our economy each year”.
That is not going to happen and he knows it.
Job creation is a long hard slog. Raising expectations is unnecessary and failure to live up to this will lead to frustration on the part of policy implementers and disillusionment in a nation that wants to believe again.
ROOTING OUT ROT
As Ramaphosa pointed out on Thursday night, the commissions of inquiry now under way “reveal the depth and breadth of criminal wrongdoing at the very foundation of our democratic state”.
Next to reigniting the economy and spurring job-creation, untangling and vanquishing the alternative state that developed in the past 10 years is the biggest challenge South Africa faces in the coming period.
This is key to solving every problem in the country because the purveyors of state capture decimated state capacity to achieve their motives.
“We recognise, as do all South Africans, that our greatest efforts to end poverty, unemployment and inequality will achieve little success unless we tackle state capture and corruption in all its manifestations and in all areas of public life,” said Ramaphosa.
One of the casualties of the past decade was the growing sense of nationhood, which was replaced by a growing sense of division.
This will probably be one of the toughest tasks facing our nation.
“It seemed that the milk of human kindness that had allowed us to reconcile in 1994 had gone sour,” the president said.
These divisions have erupted between black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban, between the sexes and between language groups and cultures.
Pledging that “we will not surrender to the forces of pessimism and defeatism” Ramaphosa said, perhaps optimistically, that South Africa was “anchored in the roots of tolerance and co-existence”.
However, despite Ramaphosa’s impressive words, South Africa is not yet out of the woods.
A great speech does not a great turnaround make. Oratory and vision do not a great leader make.
Well-crafted promises do not – on their own – edge a nation forward.
But Thursday was a great push in the right direction.
TALK TO US
What did you think about the state of the nation address? Did President Cyril Ramaphosa capture your assent?
SMS us on 35697 using the keyword SONA and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50. By participating, you agree to receive occasional marketing material