For the first time in democratic South Africa, Parliament suspended the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Disruption by parliamentary rulebook was the EFF’s choice on Thursday night – first calling former president FW de Klerk a “murderer”, then for the dismissal of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. The EFF finally walked out. And President Cyril Ramaphosa got his chance.
The nub of the EFF’s persistent disruption by points of order lay in a small, but crucial technicality – every time the presiding officers asked the EFF MPs to take their seat, they did. And so the next step of the process – the removal of the rowdy MPs – could not kick in, regardless of the level of provocation that clearly frayed tempers in the House.
The just over the 10-minute suspension of the House sorted out an agreement – EFF leader Julius Malema got to repeat his party’s points – before the EFF contingent walked out, shouting “Pravin must go”.
Those populist theatrics may have been meant to pander to an evening-time broadcast audience of potential EFF supporters, but in the House the EFF was roundly criticised.
DA interim leader John Steenhuisen said, “We cannot have the people’s business disrupted as we had…” and called for EFF to be referred to the powers and privileges committee for disciplinary action.
ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina echoed this sentiment. “We have been abused for over an hour. These members must be referred to the powers and privileges committee…”
Chief whips of all other political parties followed suit, with United Democratic Movement (UDM) Chief Whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa saying: “We are gatvol…”
It was a rare show of unity across the political party divide in the House.
And it was a show of unity not out of step from the appeal President Cyril Ramaphosa made when he finally started delivering his SONA.
“Our history and contemporary experience has taught us that if we are to achieve what we set out to do, we must focus on what unites us, instead of divides,” said Ramaphosa.
“Achieving consensus and building social compacts is not a demonstration of weakness. It is the very essence of who we are.”
And because of social compacts, South Africa would be able to do what it must to move ahead – into inclusive economic growth, district-level development with government, labour, business and community organisations coming together.
But it was a curious approach, given there was no way Ramaphosa could avoid the brutal realities of South Africa – low economic growth, persistently high unemployment alongside sharp and deepening inequality.
And so, while recognising Eskom’s financial turmoil, Ramaphosa also moved to normalise rolling power outages.
“Load shedding will remain a possibility for the immediate future. Where load shedding is unavoidable, it must be undertaken in a manner that is predictable and minimises disruption and the cost to firms and households.”
And then it was back to social compacting as a way to resolve South Africa’s problems, as the president highlighted the recent discussions at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on making government employees’ pensions and social savings available to take R250-billion off Eskom’s R450-billion debt.
Calling this a “social compact on electricity”, Ramaphosa said:
“This is a historic and unprecedented development since it demonstrates the commitment of all social partners to take the necessary actions and make the necessary sacrifices to secure our energy needs.
“The social partners – trade unions, business, community and government – are committed to mobilising funding to address Eskom’s financial crisis in a financially sustainable manner.”
The ability of anyone to establish limited own-generation of power, and the ability of municipalities to procure non-Eskom power are not in themselves new – Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe indicated as much at the recent Mining Indaba – but have now received the presidential seal of approval.
Not quite such a rosy glow emerges from the government financing front, where cost-cutting is – again – on the cards. And limits to the public wage bill are now unavoidable when negotiations with civil service unions start later in 2020. Discussions are already on to “contain the public wage bill” and reduce wastage.
“We need to fix our public finance,” said Ramaphosa.
“Low levels of growth mean that we are not generating enough revenue to meet our expenses. Our debt is heading towards unsustainable levels, and spending is misdirected towards consumption and debt-servicing rather than infrastructure and productive activity. We cannot continue along this path. Nor can we afford to stand still.”
Some of the measures have been kicked for touch to the Budget on 26 February 2020, such as the details on a sovereign wealth fund and a state bank.
But Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, who has repeatedly and publicly called for urgent action, did get the nod – the president hinted the structural reforms would be in line with the discussion paper “Economic Transformation, Inclusive Growth and Competitiveness”, the finance minister released last year.
State-owned entities (SOEs) would be restructured with a view to ensuring efficiency while South African Airways’ restructuring is needed to result in a viable flag carrier.
In preparation for the National Health Insurance (NHI), as the legislation is making its way through Parliament, already some 44 million South Africans have been registered at 3,000 clinics in an electronic patient database.
Similarly, while Parliament is finalising a constitutional amendment on land expropriation without compensation, Ramaphosa announced 700,000 hectares of state-owned land would be made available for agriculture.
“We are prioritising youth, women, people with disabilities and those who have been farming on communal land and are ready to expand their operations for training and allocation of land,” said Ramaphosa. “A new beneficiary selection policy includes compulsory training for potential beneficiaries before land can be allocated to them.”
And then Ramaphosa ticked off progress on previous promises, from new higher education institutions at Ekurhuleni, to making business easier, boosting tourism numbers and, through the Infrastructure Fund, ensuring “shovel-ready projects” on, for example, additional student accommodation. Water licences that are essential to operations on farms, factories and mines, would now be issued within 90 days.
On youth unemployment, something close to Ramaphosa’s heart, the president detailed a series of steps, including the launch of five prototype sites in five provinces to provide three million young people with active support, information and work readiness training. Flexible short courses in fast-growing sectors are planned, along with measures to support youth entrepreneurship and self-employment.
As South Africa continues to fight corruption and State Capture, Ramaphosa promised to make public the report of the inquiry into shenanigans at the Public Investment Corporation.
All this was part of a very detailed address, from action, such as tightening bail legislation, on gender-based violence to women empowerment in small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) and a third international investment programme.
There was something for everyone in Thursday’s SONA that ran a bit long at 7,415 words. It seems the president has very much taken to heart criticism that SONAs are fudgy, and discussed some technical, operational details. He got to push his message of hope and unity – aka social compacts – as the future path for South Africa.
“We find ourselves at a decisive moment in our history. It is a time of great difficulty and doubt, but also a time laden with great opportunities,” argued Ramaphosa.
“Over the last two years, we have worked together to build a foundation for progress. Now is the time for us to build on that foundation, to unite, to work, to persevere.” DM