On Thursday evening, 20 June 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa will stand at the podium in the National Assembly and offer up his third State of the Nation Address. It is supposed to be a grand moment, one that has been tarnished over the past few years for various political reasons.
It is clear that any momentum Ramaphosa had built up over the past few months has all but disappeared. This is a big opportunity for him to re-direct the narrative, to almost dictate the terms of engagement. The economy, state-owned entities, and of course Eskom, all need direction which only he can provide. But he appears hemmed in, tied down, surrounded by foes within the ANC. This may be his one last chance to break free of that.
Just a few short weeks ago Ramaphosa stood on a grand stage at the Loftus Versfeld stadium and promised to eradicate poverty within a generation. It was an attempt to create some momentum, to start a conversation about the future and the way forward. That momentum was halted, swallowed up, just a few days later by the fracas within the ANC about the mandate of the Reserve Bank.
There is evidence that the key dynamic of these current times — the relationship between Ramaphosa and ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule — was part of the conflict. Then, just days later, that tide seemed to turn again when it emerged that the ANC’s national executive committee had agreed to investigate claims that some of its leaders (presumed to include Magashule) may have been involved in the formation of the African Transformation Movement (ATM).
Things swung again on Wednesday afternoon with the announcement of the chairs of the parliamentary committees. People such as Faith Muthambi (who appointed and protected Hlaudi Motsoeneng), Mosebenzi Zwane (who clearly helped the Guptas at crucial moments) and Bongani Bongo (who was accused of trying to bribe Parliament’s then legal adviser) all got crucial posts. Considering their histories, their names simply do not chime with Ramaphosa’s proclaimed “New Dawn”.
It is clear from this announcement that Magashule is not finished and is still fighting. Although it could be claimed that by choosing people with such histories shows that he has no other options and is using them even though it is obvious, to everyone, what he is doing.
But, still, for Ramaphosa, the big advantage of being president is still that he is the president. He can command attention like no other person. And this is a grand occasion. He has almost a captive audience — even those who don’t necessarily enjoy politics may well be watching, just to see what he says and how those in red react.
This means that this is an important night to grab the moment and to make announcements that could change the game.
The real question here may well be what checks his political opponents in the ANC have on him — what could they do to frustrate him?
In some ways there is very little they can do; it is his speech. This means that in the moment, Ramaphosa can actually announce much of what he wants to achieve.
But in the longer run, it is clear that his opponents will try to measure what he announces and implements by whether they fit with the ANC’s Nasrec resolutions. This is a departure from the past, where resolutions made at Polokwane and Mangaung were often ignored (there is still no Media Appeals Tribunal, the Mangaung promise to implement the National Development Plan went nowhere, and so on).
But now it seems that Magashule and others will try to use the ANC’s National General Council to hold Ramaphosa to account on whether his government is implementing resolutions to change the Constitution on land expropriation without compensation and changing the mandate of the Reserve Bank.
However, Ramaphosa may have space to move here too, if only because the balance of power is still in his favour. This is for the reason that has always handicapped his opponents — there is no obvious person they could elect to replace him as leader of the ANC.
In the meantime, it is obvious that, as it was with Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in February 2019, Eskom is the major issue.
The problem for him here is that while there were big promises in February about breaking it up into three parts, it could appear that Eskom has actually gone backwards since then. There was Stage Four load shedding for the first time a month later, there is still no Chief Reorganisation Officer, and CEO Phakamani Hadebe is now working out his notice.
That said, the fact the unions have been quiet over the past few months could also suggest that in fact there is some fruitful negotiation going on under the radar.
The problem with Eskom is that there are no simple answers. Its debt will have to be repaid. The only people who can pay are those who pay for electricity and those who pay tax. In other words, the debt can be repaid through the tariff or by government. Whether this is delayed, or parsed in some way almost doesn’t matter. At some point, the money has to be repaid.
Fixing Eskom, or telling people they will have to pay billions to fix Eskom (while those who created this situation are still scot-free) doth not a lofty address make. But there is surely no other choice. The question on Thursday evening will be: What trade-offs are made, and how is Ramaphosa going to manage it?
In some strange way, in terms of the ANC’s above-the-line internal politics, Eskom almost doesn’t matter. But what does matter is the strange coalition of interests involving coal miners, unions and those who oppose Ramaphosa who have banded together to try to prevent some of the plans from being implemented. This coalition has not been heard from for some time and Ramaphosa may now judge the time is right to provoke some reaction from them.
Allied to Eskom is the economy.
Ramaphosa came to power in the ANC in 2017 (sort of…) promising to implement a social accord of business, labour and government. At the time, his own back-story seemed to show that he was the only person capable of pulling off such a feat. Yet, that too has disappeared. If Ramaphosa does not mention some sort of action plan, or economic plan, or details of an accord in his address, many who supported him may feel that this simply is not going to happen.
The importance of this may not be in the way the currency reacts (or doesn’t) in the hours after the speech, but in the message it will send to people who are losing hope. They are the ones sitting on the side of the road asking for a job, for work of any kind.
If Ramaphosa is unable to announce some sort of plan the message to them will be that nothing is going to change. That would well have consequences down the line as they might feel the system does nothing for them and have even less respect for the system than they have already, if that’s possible.
It could also be said that if Ramaphosa does not have an economic plan it would be honourable for him to say so in public. Then at least people would know where they are, allowing others to offer economic alternatives.
In the middle of all of this are the other SOEs.
These include some important levers to the economy, such as SAA, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and the SABC (Conflict Alert: the writer’s other job is at SAfm — Ed). The case for reforming these organisations continues to be made, and yet there has been very little change in the past year. In the case of SAA, its CEO is also serving notice, having decided to resign. Prasa is also working its way through another acting CEO. All of this suggests that real fundamental change is still needed at many of the SOEs. And yet a combination of difficult trade-offs (should workers be retrenched, how many, and so on) and difficult politics (can we push this through the next NEC meeting?) makes this sometimes impossible to do.
However, some of these SOEs are running out of road. The SABC’s chair Bongumusa Makhatini said over the weekend that the SABC could only pay salaries, and even the City of Joburg was not being paid for the lights and water at Auckland Park. The crisis cannot be staved off forever.
A problem that Ramaphosa is now facing is that many people appear to be tired of promises. Over the past 20 years, voters have heard it all before — and the economic momentum built up during the Mbeki years has completely dissipated.
During his February 2019 State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa promised that those guilty of criminality during the State Capture era would be held accountable. South Africans were told to “watch this space”. So far, no one has been arrested or even charged with any wrongdoing, apart from Durban mayor Zandile Gumede.
All of it is not happening while, day after day, the testimonies at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture brought the most astonishing array of evidence of how decisions were made to benefit a lucky few (and those who enjoy big weddings). This has led to a feeling that those who made, or rather stole, millions during that time will get away with it.
It may be sensible for Ramaphosa to avoid making new promises.
Perhaps Ramaphosa would be well advised to stay away from the lofty rhetoric altogether. Maybe a more politically practical move would be to keep it technocratic, to move away from the destination and to the route, the road that needs to be taken to get there. But for the moment it can appear that he doesn’t have much road at all. It is up to him to break out of the chains. DM