Mpumelelo Mkhabela | Sona: Less rhetoric, more action needed from Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa in the National Assembly. (Adrian de Kock, Gallo Images, Netwerk24, file)
President Cyril Ramaphosa in the National Assembly. (Adrian de Kock, Gallo Images, Netwerk24, file)

The State of the Nation Address is a platform to show he is in touch, in the know and has policy innovations and the political wherewithal to implement them with rigour, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela

President Cyril Ramaphosa has two main related challenges.

The first is a personal challenge: he must prove that he is capable of running government competently. The second is institutional: his abilities must reflect positively in the general direction of the country as a consequence of a well-run government.

We know of how other leaders tried to shape the direction of the country.

It is an indisputable truth that President Nelson Mandela prioritised national reconciliation while his deputy Thabo Mbeki focused on technicalities of governance, reforming apartheid institutions and overseeing the creation of new democratic-era ones.

Mandela personally embodied the reconciliation project. President Mbeki was an institutionalist, a technocrat whose major achievements, among others were the growth of the black middle class and securing South Africa’s fiscal sovereignty.

Then came President Jacob Zuma.

Need I say anything about what he brought to the Presidency, state institutions of state and the country?

It is too early to make a definitive judgement on Ramaphosa's presidency. He has been in power for only two years, although it feels like a whole term.

Read the full Friday Briefing here.

But the many problems we face as a country - not least a stagnant economy, growing government debt, the fiscal dump sites of state companies and high unemployment - require that we regularly judge his performance.

History teaches us that the challenges of the moment make or break leaders - depending on their responses.

From this perspective, South Africa's crises offer Ramaphosa a unique opportunity.

Having been in power for two years as president and over four years under Zuma's shadow, he should at least have mastered the crux of the sources of the problems we face.

He should know the people capable of assisting him to bring about solutions and what kind of solutions are required.

He should also know that South Africans are fast losing patience and they can no longer be told about progress they can't witness.

What matters is not how much government has spent on a project or delivery statistics. It's the daily trauma of unemployment, a deteriorating economy and general negative sentiment about the country that matter.

Citizens know about the irritating factional politics of the ANC the president factors in in his decision making.

They are keen to see how beholden the president is to those politics in relation to the pressing matters of national interest.

Ramaphosa should know that many observers believe he lacks the necessary decisiveness and speed in his leadership.

His consensus leadership style could be good if it brings everyone to the table and cultivates trust.

But, as previously discussed here, it could be woefully inadequate if the threshold for decision making puts the brakes on implementation.

With this in mind, Ramaphosa should fashion his 2020 State of the Nation Address with the pragmatism called for by the challenges of the moment.

He should seize the moment. Or the moment will seize him.

There are things he can do without or keep to a bare minimum.

This includes unveiling a new grand vision, going retro on some romantic past, being boastful about some insignificant progress in this or that area and going on and on about some aggregate achievements of the past 25 years.

This is not to say he shouldn’t give credit where it is due.

He should give credit for exceptional performances, but should not praise fish for being able to swim.

He should provide an honest assessment of the state of government and the country so that we know he knows and he has ideas about what should be done.

Nothing riles conscientious citizens more than a president who doesn't know or claims not to know about their conditions.

He should understandably be shocked by a sudden development, but not about the near-permanent realities that citizens have to contend with.

Citizens are consistently at the receiving end of incompetent government officials.

The State of the Nation Address is a platform to show he is in touch, in the know and has policy innovations and the political wherewithal to implement them with rigour.

He should also use the platform as a critical self-assessment and provide a detailed report-back on what he promised in the past three state of the nation addresses.

How, for example, has he performed on his stimulus package that he unveiled in 2018? Why didn't it stimulate the economy?

One of the issues that have become clearly evident recently is that his Cabinet is not cohering.

There is a general feeling that Ramaphosa is not being the strong central pillar he should be.

There is a lingering concern about whether his ministers respect his executive authority and whether he is prepared to exercise it to ensure compliance and coherence in the way government works.

This is a function of his abilities. It's about how he takes decisions and whether he provides clear directions to all those who report to him, ensuring there is policy coherence across all spheres of government.

It is also about making sure that his cabinet is not a federation of a collective that make pronouncements as in when it suits each one of the members.

As Ramaphosa, one of the authors of the Constitution no doubt knows, our supreme law is designed to ensure Cabinet works coherently with the president at the helm.

But to give effect to the constitutional ideal requires innovative ways in which he exercises power - which he is yet to demonstrate convincingly.

He should develop a governance model that makes it easy for him to know as much detail as possible about the entire operation of government.

He should break down the silos and the territorial jealousies that only serve the egos of some government officials while hobbling policy execution.

Most importantly, his address must demonstrate that he has figured how to grow the economy, create jobs and make it clear to his ministers he is ready to wield the axe on anyone who sabotages job creation and abuses public funds.

Law enforcement agencies must do their work, but nothing stops the president from dismissing a deputy minister who stole taxpayers' money and used it as lobola subsidy for a relative.

The fact that a deputy minister remains in office long after a scandal was exposed in City Press will inevitably undermine whatever the president will say about fighting corruption in his State of the Nation Address.

Like many problems facing the country, corruption needs action, not rhetoric.

However lyrical his speech might be, he will be judged on implementation.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

Read the full Friday Briefing here.

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