SONA Then & Now: The 2019 edition tipped to be a working one targeting renewal, inclusive growth
Politically, this SONA President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers just before elections is no less important than the one after the poll. And it might just be more important, if this get-down-to-work attitude is to signal broader and concrete changes.
Thursday’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) is set to be a working affair focused on renewal and inclusive growth as South Africa marks 25 years of constitutional democracy. The traditional presidential drive through central Cape Town in lock-down is off, three insiders to the planning confirmed, as are the banners along key city thoroughfares that Parliament said would save it R1-million.
What today is known as the State of the Nation Address (SONA) used to be marked as the Opening of Parliament, when the president addressed lawmakers on the state of the nation at the start of the parliamentary calendar, amid pomp and ceremony. That shift of emphasis is more than linguistic nuance: moving the focus from the legislative sphere of state to the executive and its leader, the president, happened in parallel to the often subtle shifts in South Africa’s constitutional democracy over the past decade or so.
There was a time when journalists, predominately those who reported from Parliament, were briefed on the content of the presidential address well ahead of time – on the eve of the then 11 am next day delivery – with an embargo that nothing would appear in print or broadcast until early in the morning of the presidential address.
The content of those briefings was on the broad-sweep political direction, government programmes and detailed technical data. These were sessions with the most senior government communicators like Joel Netshitenzhe, the Mandela presidency head of communications and ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member who went on to become the inaugural GCIS CEO in May 1998, the post he held until 2009. There were rules: the information provided, also to follow-up questions, was never misleading, but there would be no direct attribution, only phrasing like, “It is understood…” or “The president is expected…”
Not once in the over 10 years that these briefings happened in democratic South Africa was there a breach of trust, or of an embargo. And so before the president got up on the podium of the National Assembly to deliver his speech – usually, though not always, on a Friday morning – the details had been broadly disseminated by print and broadcast, and the president could elaborate, sketch out further details on key announcements and engage in an informed public discourse.
This approach also had applied to the 2 February 1990 announcement of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail by FW de Klerk, the last apartheid president who went on to serve as a deputy president in democratic South Africa’s government of national unity.
“A group of us, eight, were invited to Tuynhuys at 5 am on 2 February 1990. We were brought up to speed. I remember saying: ‘Holy fuck, he’s gone the whole way. He’s even unbanned the commies’,” said a Parliamentary Press Gallery veteran. “He’s had a good showing in the afternoon papers.”
In democratic South Africa Mandela kept the morning date for the opening of the first democratic Parliament on 24 May 1994, and subsequently. That’s what it was known as the opening of Parliament, with the president delivering a keynote address including serious announcements, including a broad politico-governance perspective of the challenges and direction to resolve these that required everyone putting shoulder to the wheel.
Mandela was keenly aware of his and his government’s need to account to Parliament, as he put it quite clearly when he opened the debate on the Presidency budget 100 days later on 18 August 1994:
“These times also demand of us that we regularly account to this august assembly about the work entrusted to us by the electorate. Much can be said about the content of the debate in the current session. On occasion, strong language has been used to drive home strongly held belief… It is incumbent on South Africa to be in the company of those who have recorded more success than failure.”
And again, on 17 February 1995, when in his second SONA Mandela called on those in “this hallowed chamber” to continue their work:
“Let me say this from the beginning that the challenges ahead of us require that we move away from spectacle and rhetoric and bend our backs to the serious work ahead of us.”
It was the later years of the Thabo Mbeki presidency that saw the shift to the president delivering his State of the Nation Address, almost coincidentally taking place in Parliament. And that’s also when the practice of pre-briefing the media fizzled out. Some of that may be related to the increasing protocolisation of government, where hierarchies became increasingly important. Much of it was related to the increasing media scrutiny of Mbeki and the ANC, caught in succession factional battles ahead of the 2007 Polokwane ANC national conference.
“As the ANC came more and more under attack, the media was trusted less and less,” said the Parliamentary Press Gallery veteran, adding that it all changed under President Jacob Zuma when SONA was moved to the 7 pm evening slot.
“There is no evidence to suggest more viewership, because people are watching soapies,” the parliamentary press veteran said, adding that it was “patently absurd” to think Capetonians would vote for the administration that closed off streets and locked down the city for this event.
While Zuma still delivered his first SONA after the 2009 elections on the morning of 3 June, that was changed from 2010. And GCIS insisted this change had doubled television viewership to just over four million, and boosted interest among all South Africans. Or as GCIS then deputy GCIS CEO Vusi Mona put it in early 2011:
“The nation loves it. At this point, it may be appropriate to ask: when did the SONA stop being about the nation? We may not know exactly, but President Zuma has put the nation back into the State of the Nation Address.”
Also accelerating in the Zuma administration was the increasing securitisation of SONA, although much of this has taken place away from the public eye.
What was once a straightforward practice of journalists submitting names and photos for accreditation tags from Parliament – one or two previous SONAs had been outsourced to a private company – became pre-vetting and registration by the spooks and spies of the SSA, officially the State Security Agency. Then parliamentary staff, be they tea ladies, cleaners, office clerks or committee staff, who had used to watch the red carpet from nearby spaces, balconies and office windows, were told to stay home or go home by 1 pm on the day because they were not essential for the day.
By 2015 the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) was in charge. The structure is not set out in law or regulation, but arises from a Cabinet memo, to bring together police, intelligence services and defence force. Natjoints is on record regarding SONA in the same category as, say, an international conference or function.
“The State of the Nation Address (SONA) is no different. This event is the largest event on the South African Parliamentary calendar and the successful planning for this event is equally critical,” is how Natjoints put it in 2015. In 2017 Natjoints issued a statement in which it “assures the people of South Africa and community of Cape Town of the readiness of the security forces to secure the deliverance of the 2017 State of the Nation Address by His Excellency President Jacob Zuma, taking place in Cape Town on Thursday, 9 February 2017…”.
There could be no clearer indication how what once was Parliament’s moment, the annual Opening of Parliament, had changed to be an event of the executive and secured by what is part of the executive, the security forces.
SONA 2015 was marred by the signal jammer debacle – it was an oversight by a junior operative that the device was not switched off and removed, according to official statements – and also the introduction of a “high risk” team, including riot police, dressed in white shirts deployed to remove unruly MPs. By the next year, the bouncers were incorporated as chamber support officers in the Parliamentary Protection Services, alongside new parliamentary rules on evictions of rowdy MPs.
SONA 2107 was marred when soldiers armed with automatic rifles, not part of any ceremonial proceedings, were spotted on the parliamentary precinct in contravention of the law and parliamentary rules and practice. Like with the signal jammer and high-risk unit, there were undertakings of investigations. It is not clear what, if anything, was ever formally concluded and submitted.
For the past nine years or so, journalists at SONA counted themselves lucky if a copy of the president’s speech was made available by email 20 minutes or so before the end of the usually 80-minute long address. As the event was live broadcast on television, there was a prevalent notion that there was no need to facilitate or enable anything else as GCIS increasingly has seemed to become about communications logistics such as banners and logos.
On Thursday Ramaphosa delivers his second SONA. The “Thuma Mina” theme of his first, delivered after a superheated political drama in February 2018 that saw the unprecedented postponement of SONA and Zuma resigning before completing his term has stuck. It has helped frame much of government activity, including a series of conferences on investment, jobs, gender and education arising from 2018 SONA pledges, while also allowing for the appointment of a panel of experts on tricky issues like land and Eskom. But after a year, particularly in light of the brutally harsh spotlight on State Capture before the Zondo Commission, there is impatience for concrete action.
Foremost on the list would be signalling changes to government, the review of which Ramaphosa had announced in SONA 2018, by, for example, calling on public servants to be more responsive and to deliver quality services. It would fall within the renewal narrative that touches on turning away from corruption and State Capture to a capable and effective state.
Inclusive economic growth is easily talked about, although the dire straits of the public finances do not lend themselves to quick-fix announcements. But SONA 2019 must say something about Eskom, its future structure and financing, and the state of affairs at other State-owned Enterprises (SoEs) where new boards may be cleaning up governance, but finances are still in a mess. Details may be kicked down the line to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s Budget on 20 February.
Land and land expropriation is another area Ramaphosa would want to talk about, given international and domestic concerns. That’s although Parliament’s programming committee last Thursday formally accepted the impossibility of completing the constitutional amendment to expressly allow expropriation without compensation. It had been clear as soon as the motion was adopted in committee in late November 2018 – there are set time frames for tabling constitutional amendments in addition to public comment and public hearing processes – but not acknowledged amid the political posturing on this issue in the final days of the parliamentary 2018 calendar.
Ramaphosa has a tall order on his hands. His first SONA set a new path, in that pledges of action, like the jobs and investment indabas, actually happened. He’d want SONA 2019 to continue down that road with a concrete serious announcement or two. That would also help return SONA to the status it used to have in the early days of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.
But it would require the ANC, finely balanced between factional interests, to find common ground from which concrete announcements could arise sustainably without later policy flip-flops. And it’s here the big unknown lies. DM
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