SONA debate must interrogate vague plans

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This week’s debate on the State of the Nation Address in parliament is an opportunity for opposition parties to kick the tyres, inspect the engine and check the brakes of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vague plans (delivered on June 20) to make South Africa prosperous again. This in order to ensure that all things which mark the official opening of the 6th Parliament are underpinned by bold government action to collaboratively translate election promises into reality. The debate is a deeply unsatisfactory process, from which the majority of opposition parties will be allocated limited time to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of the president’s speech, but it is the only process there is. To make it a meaningful test, they must prove that they are tougher than they look and make good on their promises to represent the people.

Opposition parties won’t prosper in this debate by trying to imitate Ramaphosa’s dreams of a high-speed train ferrying tourists from Cape Town to Musina, especially in the face of inconveniences faced by the daily users of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s dilapidated, burnt and never-on-time Metrorail trains. They will never tell better jokes about the story of origin of their outerwear, while leaving the substance and source of their underwear a mystery – as Ramaphosa did in the middle of the speech when he announced that the suit, tie, and shirt he was wearing was produced by House of Monatic in Salt River, Cape Town.

Expectations are high this time for political parties across the board to demonstrate their relevance as South Africa is increasingly embracing independent candidacy in our representative democracy, not only at local government level, but also at national and provincial levels. This shift suggests possibilities in the near future of public representatives which might include independent candidates.

So one of the tasks for opposition parties is to sit the ANC government down, tell it to breathe deeply and invite it to act boldly on a detailed plan to realise the five strategic goals set out in Ramaphosa’s vague speech.  While the speech touched on important socio-economic challenges to address in the next ten years, it provided very little detail about how this will be achieved. The absence of details left hopes of many South Africans suspended in a state of limbo if not purgatory. As one commentator Adriaan Basson pointedly asked: “Ramaphosa’s five strategic goals are important for focus, but how will we get there? How will he ensure that no South African goes hungry? How will he get our economy to grow at a faster rate than the population? Who will create the two million extra jobs for young people over the next decade? How will we get every 10-year old to read for meaning? And how will the police halve violent crime in ten years? Ramaphosa made it clear that the government alone cannot do this – fair enough. But these goals will mean nothing and will disappear if they are not broken up into tangible, achievable outcomes.”

One duty that falls on opposition parties is to use the debate to direct fierce scrutiny at ANC government’s often shifting and contradictory propositions about economic growth and land reform. Ramaphosa started his speech by referring to the devastating effects of the 1913 Land Act, but did not hint in any way how the debate about land reform may shape in the next 12 months. How exactly is he going to do a deal by next June with stakeholders that say they are on the opposite ends of the policy and legislative spectrum?

If he is in possession of a magical solution to the youth unemployment conundrum, why didn’t he reveal details of his masterplan to the nation to back up his claim that government is ready to create pathways into work for young people and make sure it empowers youth, particularly young women? Where are the details on how government will not only place young people at the centre of his plans for job creation, but also in an integral position in fourth industrial revolution plans? Could lack of details be because this is just another fantasy that doesn’t withstand a moment of examination by anyone who understands how realistic plans work?

These are questions that need asking and pressing, asking again and pressing again, until the grieving mothers of boys killed in Hanover Park, Delft and Bonteheuwel in gang violence over the past few weeks also find reasons to ululate about the prospects of a China-like Smart City with skyscrapers. Opposition party members should debate the speech in a manner that make them the exemplary public representatives who ask the hard questions. They will have to be the ones prepared to tell the ANC government some truths about the dreams and woolly promises in the Ramaphosa’s speech and get it to face the realities of its position.

This debate can get opposition parties in range of Ramaphosa’s greatest vulnerability. Ramaphosa’s supposed talent as a campaigner for direct foreign investment and clean government is his big attraction to the country. It comes attached to the big risk to us all that his detractors in the ANC could tumble the country over the cliff and the party into an annihilating election going forward each time he delivers a speech that is high on dreams but low on detail about how plans will be achieved.

The odds are stacked against opposition parties in this debate, as we expect them go beyond criticizing to offer tangible details to improve the sorry state of our nation. But, even if opposition parties fail to provide sufficient details, they can fail honourably by making this a robust contest of pragmatic ideas, and not merely a rehashing of empty election campaign slogans. They will be doing a vital service to both their political parties and the country if they interrogate the character, punctures the fantasies, nails the evasions and unravels the deceptions of Ramaphosa’s speech. They should strive to compel a little more urgency and boldness from the president. If opposition parties can do that, they might even make President Cyril Ramaphosa a bit fitter to become the president we all admire to lead us to prosperity. 

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a Policy Analyst and Chairperson of the Election Monitoring Network.