President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his response to Parliament’s post-SONA debate on the 64th anniversary of the Kliptown drafting of the Freedom Charter – and he took advantage of the symbolism of the date to hit back at criticism of his SONA.
A day previously, Ramaphosa had come in for a drubbing from opposition politicians who claimed that his second SONA of 2019 had put the emphasis on fantasies of new smart cities and bullet trains when his focus should be on more immediate problems.
At the time when the Freedom Charter was drafted, Ramaphosa pointed out, it was a statement of “extraordinary ambition”, looking beyond the “dire conditions to a country fundamentally different”.
The implication was that his SONA should be viewed in the same light: as projecting an aspirational but necessary vision of what a future South Africa could be like.
Simultaneously, Ramaphosa sought to argue that his critics had unfairly zoomed in on a few details within his address without paying sufficient attention to the wider picture.
“The State of the Nation Address was not merely about dreams,” Ramaphosa contended. “It was about the lived reality of our people and about setting out what we need to do.”
But despite this defensiveness, Ramaphosa had clearly absorbed the message from Parliament that what the public craved was a more detailed outline of government plans for the year.
To compensate, the president delivered what could be seen as an alternative SONA: one with the visionary dream-weaving stripped away in favour of supplying some hard(er) facts and figures.
In just over an hour, he spent very little time responding to individual MPs’ critiques of the previous day, choosing instead to flesh out references in the original SONA and reiterate the government priorities he felt had been overlooked in favour of smart cities and bullet trains.
Among the concrete steps Ramaphosa’s administration intends to implement by the end of the year are the following:
An “action plan” will be finalised on a new visa regime;
Policy will be finalised on the spectrum licensing process with the aim of reducing mobile data costs;
A youth-employment strategy will be devised;
Further engagement will take place with organised business to ease the difficulty of doing business in South Africa;
A national plan of action will be finalised to tackle extortion and violence in sectors like construction;
Advisory councils, including the presidential advisory council on state-owned entities (SOEs), will commence work;
A township entrepreneurship plan will be implemented;
A detailed road map for Eskom’s future will be produced;
Further progress will be made on the Public-Private Growth Initiative;
The master plans to reinvigorate South Africa’s industrialisation will be finalised; and
The comprehensive approach to land reform will be released, guided by the recent report of the presidential panel set up to advise on this.
It’s unlikely a list of this nature will assuage Ramaphosa’s critics, as the majority of items still relate to devising further plans and policies rather than implementing much in the short term.
But Ramaphosa stressed that the responsibility for releasing detailed plans of action falls to individual departments and their respective ministers. Five-year plans are to be announced in the coming weeks via the budget statements of each department.
The president also used his response to tackle two of the thorniest current national issues in a more direct way than he managed during his SONA.
On the topic of SOEs, Ramaphosa issued one of his strongest-worded statements to date in defence of their ongoing existence.
“I disagree with the view that the most effective and efficient way to provide services to our people is through the private sector,” Ramaphosa said, arguing that every day in South Africa water, electricity, waste removal and road maintenance is provided through SOEs.
To defend his position, Ramaphosa cited the example of the Post Office, which stepped in during the social grants crisis and is now used as the conduit to deliver social grants to 70% of all recipients.
“The Post Office is state-owned and it is being turned around,” said Ramaphosa.
He suggested this example proves that “government institutions do have the capacity and the capability to effectively implement projects of great magnitude”.
The other vexed topic that Ramaphosa turned his attention to more directly was that of land.
The day before, MPs from the EFF had accused Ramaphosa of retreating on the issue of land expropriation without compensation. That is not the case, the president made clear.
“This Parliament will finalise the constitutional amendments to clearly indicate how expropriation without compensation will be put into effect,” Ramaphosa said.
He described expropriation without compensation as “an important land acquisition strategy”, necessary because “it enables us to conduct land reform in a proactive and planned manner” which frees government from the “wait-and-see approach” dictated by only purchasing land which comes on to the market.
But Ramaphosa also delivered a caveat: expropriation without compensation, he stressed, is “but one of the instruments that we have in our toolbox to achieve agrarian reform and spatial justice”.
Others include recognising individual and communal land rights and distributing suitable public land.
Ramaphosa received what was, in the main, a respectful hearing from the gathered members of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, with heckling being muted and sporadic. The president received the greatest volume of vocal objections when he unintentionally mis-gendered local musician Sho Madjozi in the course of congratulating the artist on her recent BET (Black Entertainment Television) award.
For those still sceptical by the end of his address, Ramaphosa uncharacteristically proposed a visit to the Bible: “Let us always remember what Proverbs 29 instructs us: Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Ramaphosa said.
“I do not want South Africa to perish. Let the people have a vision.” DM
In other news...
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