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Ramaphosa address: An opportunity to step up with timel...

South Africa

SONA 2021

Ramaphosa address: An opportunity to step up with timelines, details and implementation for SA’s future (or not)

President Cyril Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation Address in Parliament, Cape Town, on 13 February 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

When President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his 2021 State of the Nation Address, it will be Lockdown Day 322. Over the past 11 months, he’s delivered 17 addresses to the nation. The question on Thursday is whether Ramaphosa can raise the game with a big-picture account of his administration’s priorities.

Addresses to the nation, by their character and in their political role, are one-way communication channels at times of crisis. South Africa has had 17 of those, dubbed presidential statements on “progress on the national effort against the Covid-19 pandemic” from 15 March 2020, announcing the State of Disaster, to the last on 1 February.

A State of the Nation Address (SONA) like Thursday’s has always been different. Traditionally, the presidential setting-out of government priorities and plans for the year marks the formal opening of the parliamentary year and is followed by three days of debate.

The presidential address is almost immediately put under scrutiny and critique and, given Parliament’s party political fault lines, robust point-scoring takes place.

The question is, what will President Cyril Ramaphosa bring to the House that’s different to what’s been said previously or that’s practically responsive to continuing economic deterioration and social fracturing?

There are a few givens.

Ramaphosa is set to talk about Covid-19 vaccines as a pressing priority as the cost of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions wreak havoc, with South Africa’s economy in the doldrums. Never mind the confusion and setbacks to date and the possibility of vaccine shortages as highlighted in the recent Cabinet lekgotla documents seen by Daily Maverick.

Job creation as a priority alongside public mass employment programmes will feature, together with infrastructure development and re-industrialisation. And there’ll be presidential talk of unlocking economic opportunities for growth during the now clichéd “new normal”. There’s likely to be mention of Ramaphosa’s enthusiasm for social compacting.

But when business and labour, which traditionally sit on opposite sides of the table, join in the call for action on the economy it’s a clear sign that what’s needed is urgent action and actual implementation.

Cosatu called for the “rapid implementation” of the 15 October 2020 Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP), including localisation by sector master-plans from auto to sugar, poultry farming to clothing.

“Business as usual will not work. This SONA should be about dealing with the prevailing crisis of confidence and legitimacy that the government is facing from the people,” the labour federation said in a statement on Sunday.

Also emphasising implementation was Business Leadership SA (BLSA) CEO Busi Mavuso, who in her regular Monday newsletter wrote of the need for clear timetables, policies and accountability – and for concrete foundations to be set now. “We need now to move beyond planning to action. Everyone is aligned,” she said.

That was a reference to the reinvigorated National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), which during 2020 successfully brokered agreements, if not necessarily sharp details, on a wide economic front. Ditto, most recently, over the pressing but prickly Covid-19 vaccine acquisition and roll-out.

The September 2020 Nedlac agreement on a Plan of Action was a fundamental jumping-off point for further discussions in Cabinet in its early October 2020 lekgotla – leading to Ramaphosa’s official announcement of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan on 15 October 2020 to a joint sitting of Parliament.

By calling a joint sitting, as he does for SONA, Ramaphosa indicated his administration’s seriousness about this, the latest economic plan.

And yet, four months later, the pledged spectrum auction to release broadband hasn’t happened – the last SONA promised it would in 2020 – and it is now tied up in court challenges over its T&Cs. Also not under way as pledged in 2020 is Bid Window 5 for renewable power independent producers.

Both those issues, alongside regulatory reform to support energy self-generation and on enabling scarce skills visa allocations, show that little has happened in the months since the September 2020 Nedlac agreement and the October economic recovery launch.

Instead, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, also ANC national chairperson, seemed to push for the 2,500MW nuclear programme that’s mentioned as a possibility, at a pace and scale that’s affordable in the 2019 Independent Resource Plan (IRP).

“[Mineral Resources and Energy] further plans to conclude procurement of 2,500MW Nuclear New Build Programme by 2023/24 FY subject to regulatory approvals,” according to the detailed economic update documents presented to the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) January lekgotla.

It’s difficult not to describe the fixation with nuclear as a pet project. And one that seems to come amid continuing circular ANC arguments and ideological musings.

Or “nothing new”, as the president of the ANC’s alliance partner Cosatu, Zingiswa Losi, described this ANC NEC lekgotla’s discussion papers in a written submission seen by Daily Maverick.

“The policies are clear. There is no shortage of policies. Nor do we need new plans. What we need is to honestly and constructively assess their implementation. This is something that government has failed to do.”

Cosatu’s call for implementation is echoed by business – as civil society is also advocating for social support like a basic income grant (BIG) as hunger and poverty grow.

Thursday’s SONA comes at a keenly difficult moment for South Africa – from the Covid-19 pandemic to an economy dithering in the doldrums, sharply increasing inequality and poverty, and a state unable to sustain service delivery.

Some 2.2 million jobs have been shed and joblessness stood at 43.1% in September 2020 on the broader definition that includes those too disheartened to even try to find work. The manufacturing and retail sectors remain fragile, while the mining sector’s higher contribution to the National Treasury was on the back of much higher export prices rather than production, which continued to decline.

Borrowing, as Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has repeatedly emphasised, is no longer a sustainable option – already interest repayment costs are the fastest rising Budget item, accounting for 21 cents in every tax rand.

If Ramaphosa makes an announcement on a basic income grant (BIG) it’ll be on the back of prep work done not necessarily by his administration’s Social Development Department, but the ANC’s social transformation NEC sub-committee, chaired by Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

A first BIG draft policy would be ready for the February ANC NEC meeting and, if adopted, a final policy would be ready in May, according to documents seen by Daily Maverick.

“A policy mandate is required by government from the current governing party, since the BIG was not part of its 2019 manifesto for its current term.

“However, given the current crisis and the need for the urgent decisions to address the devastating humanitarian crisis facing the country, it would be opportune for the NEC to exercise its leadership and authority to provide/amend policy guidance within the current administration.”

It’s an election year – even if various by-elections are being postponed due to the lockdown restrictions and even if the local government poll date must still be set for some time between 4 August and 1 November.

For DA leader John Steenhuisen the SONA involves choices for the governing ANC: between the “outdated 20th century ideology of state control” or allowing a thriving private sector; between a “government monopoly on energy supply with all its load shedding and spiralling costs” or a competitive energy supply; and other choices.

“In short, they’re going to choose between party and country. And this is something they’ve never been able to get right,” said Steenhuisen in his “True SONA” statement on Monday.

For his DA that meant “plugging away with what we know are the sensible and achievable solutions to reform our economy, and then hope that our message finds fertile soil among a critical mass of South Africans, including some of those in the ruling party”.

Thursday’s SONA comes at a keenly difficult moment for South Africa – from the Covid-19 pandemic to an economy dithering in the doldrums, sharply increasing inequality and poverty, and a state unable to sustain service delivery.

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi in early January 2021 suspended all Home Affairs services except issuing IDs to matriculants and passports to those still allowed to travel. The queues of desperate people at social grants offices countrywide tell a story of an at best struggling social support system. Centralising infrastructure and project management in the Presidency does not seem to have got projects off the ground.

It remains unclear what, if anything, the state is doing to ensure that the children who dropped out during the Covid-19 lockdown are returned to school, and to remedy the backlog and potentially devastating consequences of healthcare programmes affected by prioritising Covid-19.

Yet, it’s not unrealistic to expect a determinedly upbeat recovery narrative, at least in part, when Ramaphosa stands at the National Assembly podium from 7pm on Thursday.

The optics in the run-up to SONA focused firmly on progress and achievements. These included:

  • The launch of the Tourism Equity Fund for black entrepreneurs;
  • A public briefing on how 1,000 SMMEs had benefited from government support;
  • The opened application period for the Early Childhood Development Stimulus Relief Fund;
  • A site visit to check on progress on what’s called “aerotropolis catalytic projects” around OR Tambo International Airport; and
  • The launch of Ford Motor’s R15.8-billion investment to modernise its Pretoria plant.

If the president wasn’t in attendance in person or virtually, his name was linked to such progress reports.

Thursday’s SONA will be tough. And while goodwill for Ramaphosa remains, pretty words will just not cut it any more. DM

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  • It beggars belief that anyone expects Ramaphosa to make use of an opportunity. He has never done so in the past. Why would he suddenly do so now? He will use SOAN to tell us how much his beloved ANC has done for us and then waffle vaguely about what might be.

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