Reflections on SONA 2019

Cape Town-190207-.EFF members sat while President Cyril Ramaphosa walked in at Parliament to delivering the State of the Nation Address. photograph; Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered an impressive and courageous State of Nation Address last Thursday. It was manifestly clear he was speaking as the President of South Africa (SA), indeed of all its people, and not merely as leader of an ANC, deeply divided by factionalism. This address is undoubtedly the most significant he has yet delivered as President of SA. The leaders of the different political parties tended to fob it off as just a set of promises, made by him last year and by his predecessors.

A more circumspect analysis in relation to both content and the tone of the speech is necessary. His unequivocal plan in relation to Eskom is, it is submitted,the most significant aspect of his speech. He made it categorically clear that the status quo at Eskom, with its debt of about R437 billion is unsustainable and poses a dire financial threat to our entire economy and therefore requires radical change. This necessitates an unbundling of the electricity giant into three new separate but inter-related entities, for firstly for Generation; secondly for Transmission; and thirdly for distribution. This inevitably must involve privatisation. 

Ramaphosa did not apparently consult the unions and Zwelinzima Vavi, on behalf of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) expressed his extreme displeasure with the proposed Eskom unbundling and the consequent loss of jobs it must entail, describing it as a ‘declaration of war’.  In effect Ramaphosa appears to have thrown down the gauntlet as far as the trade unions are concerned, not unlike the formidable Margarete Thatcher, in the way she succesfully challenged the trade unions in the UK. 

Ramaphosa and his advisors have reached the inescapable conclusion that in order to rescue the economy of SA it is imperative to restructure Eskom fundamentally, although this would not be without pain. It is submitted that the trade unions cannot obstruct an essential policy of a government, which obtains its mandate from the electorate. In this regard Thatcher, the so-called ‘iron maid’, was successful and changed irrevocably the UK’s political configuration. Ramaphosa appears to be on a similar mission, since if Eskom in its present state collapses it will take both the economy and the state down with it. In taking on the trade unions Ramaphosa has displayed commendable courage involving a political risk. It was also announced that the traditional banquet after SONA, which would have cost about  R4.5 million had this year been dispensed with. This is an indication of fiscal discipline that could indeed become the hall mark of the Ramophosa administration, should it win the election the on 8th May.

SA is in an economic crisis that could spiral out of control, involving an inordinately large state debt, unemployment, corruption and very poor and inadequate service delivery, resulting in manifold violent protests, mainly at local government level. All this demands that Ramaphosa pursue fiscal disciple, another economic strategy of the redoubtable Margarete Thatcher.  Such an economic strategy is obviously not populist.  It will require considerable painful pruning of a bloated cabinet and civil service. It will of necessity involve the abandonment of the notorious policy of ANC cadre deployment, and appointment of suitably qualified civil service personnel, who can deliver efficient services to the public, who are at present manifestly disgruntled about this.

Using this economic strategy Ramaphosa indicated the five most urgent tasks that had to be meaningfully addressed are:

(a) Inclusive growth and employment;

(b) Improving the educational system and developing essential skills;

(c) Improving living conditions for all, especially the poor;

(d) Accelerating fight against corruption and state capture; and

(e) Increasing the capacity of the state to do, inter alia, the above. 

Although none of the above are new and have been enumerated before in SONA addresses, the tone and content of the President’s speech last Thursday reflected a determination and commitment palpably absent during the disastrous Zuma administration.

The President dealt with a large number of other issues that need to be urgently attended to. These included, inter alia, the impact of the 4th industrial revolution, the potential of the tourist industry and the crucial importance of Early Childhood Education and skills training. It was to be expected that opposition party leaders would find fault with virtually everything the President said in his address, considering that SA is in a robust election mode. 

However favourable comment has come from the economists, such as highly esteemed, De Azar Jammine, Director and Chief Economist at Econometrix, and the press, as set out in the editorial of the Independent on Saturday of 9 May, entitled ‘Ramaphosa restores confidence’. This editorial observed that he ended his address with a quotation from a former American President, Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in an arena’ speech, in which the editorial explained that it ‘was pregnant with symbolism- both to citizens to serve and give notice to the world that SA clearly is to take its … place in the world once more’. Ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the eating and we will have to see what action actually takes place.

What was absent from the President’s address was anything of substance on foreign affairs. This is disappointing taking into account the crisis in Zimbabwe, involving gross human rights abuses such as loss of life, suffering and brutality by its armed forces. This could spiral out of control with potentially disastrous consequences for both Zimbabwe and SA, with about 130 000 recent refugees having come across the border from Zimbabwe. 

It is hoped that Ramaphosa and Minister Sisulu, grapple with this problem, with the same determination and insight that the President is committed to tackle our vexed political and economic domestic situation. Indeed the resent demarche(stern letter of protest) sent to the five western states for disregarding diplomatic niceties of protocol in urging the expedition of prosecution of our alleged serious corruption offenders, should rather have been sent to dictatorial and corrupt Mgangagwa regime for manifest human rights in abuses in Zimbabwe!

George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.