Cyril Ramaphosa's leap-of-faith SONA

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (L), First Lady Tshepo Motsepe (R) and speaker of the national assembly, Baleka Mbete (C-back), arrive for the annual State of the Nation address (SONA) on February 07, 2019, at the parliament in Cape Town. (Photo by Nasief Manie / POOL / AFP)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (L), First Lady Tshepo Motsepe (R) and speaker of the national assembly, Baleka Mbete (C-back), arrive for the annual State of the Nation address (SONA) on February 07, 2019, at the parliament in Cape Town. (Photo by Nasief Manie / POOL / AFP)

Ramaphosa told a good story. He offered enough to alleviate some scepticism. But, he expects support before he can deliver, writes Daniel Silke.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA) was a personal triumph.

Notwithstanding the dismal performance of his own political party for the last decade, Ramaphosa was able to rise above the cesspit of corruption and gross inefficiency and present the most wide-ranging and constructive SONA address in years.

In fact, this SONA was so expansive, so comprehensive that it seemed to lose some focus and largely ended up as an itemised manifesto-style wishlist.

One could argue that this was more of a manifesto launch masquerading as a SONA – especially given the announcement of the election date made at the end of the speech.

There should be no surprise that in an election year, the sitting president would want to accentuate all the positives and use the nationally televised address to put his best foot forward.

And indeed, this SONA ended up as a successful national launch of the ANC's election campaign that increasingly looks as though it's being built on the individual persona of Ramaphosa himself.

In the far-ranging address, Ramaphosa chose a series of political, economic and social touch-points that will broadly resonate with a very broad cross-section of South Africans.

While there were the usual vague platitudes about job creation, innovation and education, this SONA had more meat-on-the-bones than expected. Foremost amongst these was the proposed unbundling of Eskom into three units ultimately aimed at increasing efficiencies.

There was a sense of urgency to these proposals although little was forthcoming on the R419bn debt owed by the beleaguered parastatal. Clearly, the proposals announced were designed to play well in the offices of a broader domestic and international business community clamouring for the stabilisation of this albatross round the country's neck.

Significantly, the president did threaten to shift ANC policy on unfettered state control of public enterprises. He moved closer to Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni when he hinted that those SOEs that remained a drain on the state could be disposed of. Perhaps this was the first glimmer of "privatisation-by-stealth" which will find favour in the corporate boardrooms but will strike terror into the hearts of the trade unions.

Still, just the hint that the state cannot for ever and a day prop up ailing SOEs is a shift – baby-steps as it might be. Within the broader context, Ramaphosa still largely stuck to the constructs of the 'developmental' state which fudged the issue for those seeking great clarity either way.

Economic policy clearly was on the front-burner of SONA. But there were little practical suggestions at alleviating the disastrous rates of unemployment. Again, we heard reference to Special Economic Zones (SEZs) although these were mooted for years under former president Jacob Zuma.

Ultimately, economic policy initiatives require the ANC to adjust its moribund thinking on the role of the state, the notion of protecting workers and also understanding that job retention needs to match performance. Ramaphosa's check-list of solutions will still largely be stuck in the ideological quicksand of ANC-alliance politics thereby preventing their successful implementation.

However, it should be noted that what we witnessed was only SONA part one. This is the pre-election SONA and will be followed in mid-May with a post-election SONA in which a more practical agenda for change may be offered depending on the size of the mandate.

The jury remains out on taking the broad-brushstroke SONA proposals and really implementing them. That will depend on Ramaphosa's political courage in forcing those within his party who are resistant to change to shape up to the task at hand.

If he cannot convince his own card-carrying members to shift their own thinking, he aint going to get it right. Simple as that. And, if all the anti-corruption talk simply prosecutes the low-hanging fruit, efforts at ethical governance will be short-lived.

How ironic too, that a positive talking point in SONA was the re-introduction of an anti-corruption task-force like the Scorpions when the very same parliamentarians and ANC cadres presided over – and supported – its demise all those years ago.

On a positive note, the speech carried a host of references to wider issues of becoming more globally competitive. Clearly, an enhanced manufacturing focus to get South African-made products sold around the world is to be welcomed even though it's hardly new.

What was refreshing was a targeted commitment to improve the country's ranking on the World Bank's Doing Business Report from its current 82/190 countries to be amongst the top 50 in the next three years. For once, we saw a focus on global rankings and an understanding the competitive jurisdictions have sucked business and FDI away from us.

Critics and cynics may argue that what we saw in SONA resembled a beautifully packaged gift exquisitely wrapped and decorated – but on opening it, the substance of the contents still remained somewhat lacking.

Despite this fair assessment, the speech will play exceptionally well from Sandton to the local shebeens. And that was its intention. It was designed to bring the middle-ground back to the ANC as it largely played to the needs and desires of a diverse set of these interests.

It was also a SONA that was big on restoring institutional integrity almost ruined under the Zuma years. To this end, the rejuvenation of the NPA, the applause for the judiciary and Ramaphosa's own re-commitment to the Constitution was important in restoring confidence. Little was said, though on land expropriation which continues to undermine attempts at greater policy clarity across the board.

This was a SONA that is likely to give the Opposition parties sleepless nights, Yes, they will rightly say they have heard it all before. But, with the exception of an introduction of some cross-party banter, this was a serious address presented with heaps of political gravitas.

Whilst the policy purists will find it devoid of detail and requiring a massive leap-of-faith given the dismal internal state of the ANC, it's the electorate that counts – and it's likely to get a pretty favourable rating from them too.

Ramaphosa told a good story. He offered enough to alleviate some scepticism. But, he expects support before he can deliver. For Ramaphosa, overcoming the ANC's track record is now his major obstacle.

Yet his SONA seemed almost to run in a parallel universe to the ANC itself. He was the smooth worldly messenger whilst his party is mired in deep internal discontent. He will only succeed if he can make the ANC in his own image – and no SONA can guarantee that.

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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