DEPARTMENT OF WISHFUL THINKING
We found a Sona – President Ramaphosa, feel free to use it
Purely by accident, we came into possession of a possible State of the Nation Address – or fragments of it. Straight, hard talk and no fancy promises.
Busy people who ride the Gautrain between Pretoria and Johannesburg or the airport, in those short intervals, often try too hard to work while they are en route on those trips. Undoubtedly, some of those people live in Johannesburg, but commute to work in Pretoria – or, often, they find themselves rushing to OR Tambo Airport to get to Cape Town. Inevitably, too, such people find themselves trying to edit paper copies of documents at the same time as they are answering their cellphones or typing a hurried email or social media posting on their smartphones or laptops. And so, inevitably, sometimes, a paper document or part of one gets left behind on the train.
And so it was that the other day, one presidential aide, or perhaps someone temporarily pressed into service to help draft the President’s annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) scheduled to be delivered shortly, accidentally left part of the text he (or she) was working on, on the seat next to where they had been sitting. Later that day, one of the train system’s cleaning team found it and brought it to the Gautrain main offices. One of the more senior staffers there thought we should have a look at it since it seemed possibly newsworthy.
This was not a final copy of the full speech, just parts being worked on by the person who had left it behind. But a speech like the SONA is actually created from sections submitted by various government departments – and it often includes Cabinet members’ pet projects blessed by a Cabinet decision. Sometimes there are flights of imagination in them such as the promise a few years ago of bullet trains between South Africa’s major cities. Over time, the entire speech is smoothed into a more cogent, if not necessarily compelling, narrative by the President’s speechwriting team. The President then gets to add his or her grace notes as well.
While some may believe material like this draft can’t be misplaced so easily, sometimes stuff happens. We once had a colleague in the government who almost instantly became famous, but for the wrong reason. At the end of his long workday, he had left his briefcase on top of his car as he drove out of his building’s underground garage. The briefcase somehow managed to remain on the roof of the car, but as he drove along, its locks sprang open, and the entire contents of his briefcase flew out from it and were soon strewn all over the streets of his return drive.
Embarrassingly, many of these documents were classified. No, not nuclear codes, or the invasion plans for Ruritania, but still. Once he realised what was happening, he stopped and recovered some of them, but this particular miscue made the front pages of major newspapers all across the US. Yes, things like this do happen. You can look it up.
Now, let us return to the SONA speech draft in question. Usually, that smoothing and vetting process by the presidential speechwriting team tends to bleed out most of the human warmth and personality in the speech as it is progressively worked over and budget numbers and plans are inserted in increasingly ponderous length and detail.
As a result, the last stop for the draft ends up on the desk of a person who must inject the nearly final speech draft with some energy, some vigour, and some of the personality of the person who will actually deliver it. Sometimes, unfortunately, with all those new initiatives to be announced, personality gets overwhelmed by all the new plans. And sometimes, too, the speechmeisters insist on packing the text with all manner of numbers that become a minefield in the hands of a president with a propensity to fumble his figures, as we all remember.
And so here are the fragments as we received them, presented for your interest and attention.
… It has become usual for the President to make use of this address to announce a roster of important new, even visionary, programmes and projects, and to take pleasure in the accomplishments of the previous year.
But this time, here in 2022, in our hopefully temporary home, our speech must not be a business-as-usual address. First, this is because we are not able to gather in our traditional meeting site because of the horrific damage inflicted upon one of the most important physical symbols of our hard-won, yet still-young democratic life.
We must embrace and contemplate the meaning of this damage to help us to take real, concrete steps to ensure our public spaces and facilities are safe. We must ensure they are secure. And we must demand they are well-managed and maintained, even as they are open so that all citizens can judge how the nation’s business is being conducted on their behalf.
Of course, we cannot forget the damage done to our historic house on Parliament Square. Yes, we must remember it was a place where the iniquities of the old apartheid regime had been created by the laws that had been passed there. But it was also where our nation embraced the Herculean task of discarding the legal basis for those evils – and where it began the arduous task of constructing a just and equitable framework for the way your government conducted its business on behalf of all of our people.
Yes, our tasks in that regard are not yet completed. There remains much to be done, even now. In the same manner, we must rebuild our parliamentary buildings because they are a physical connection to our past. But because we are a resilient nation, I am certain we shall accomplish this task.
As the Bible itself instructs us in the Book of Isaiah:
“The bricks have fallen down,
But we will rebuild with smooth stones;
The sycamores have been cut down,
But we will replace them with cedars.”
Still, the task of restoring a beautiful, historic building is much easier than fixing all that ails our nation in its economy, its politics, its political culture and its society.
Even more important than the bricks and mortar of our parliamentary house, we must tackle these other tasks with enthusiasm, energy, effectiveness and resolve. For too long, we have allowed the drift of business as usual to be our way of doing things. This cannot continue.
Constitutional Court Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and his team have laboured to produce an overwhelming, deeply detailed, very troubling portrait of some of our worst ills as a government, and our way of doing things. It is not a flattering picture, but it is an accurate one.
However, the “Zondo Report” also offers us a way forward. By identifying where lapses, serious misdeeds, and real crimes have occurred, we have a roadmap of how we can clean up our national Augean stable. In ancient times, cleaning that mythic stable had been one of the labours of Hercules set for him by the Greek gods. But we do not need to wait for divine intervention. We can do this ourselves. We do not need additional study groups or commissions to chart our path. Action is what we must deliver; action is what our citizens demand.
Starting tomorrow, I will be speaking directly with the heads of every major law firm in South Africa. I will call upon them to assign their best, most aggressive, most fearless attorneys as reinforcements for our prosecutors in our struggle against the ills so effectively described in the Zondo Commission report. While we will expect their firms to continue to pay these people; by serving the nation, they will gain unparalleled experience working hand-in-hand with government prosecutors to bring all of these cases to finality, until the malefactors are convicted and punished, and the ill-gotten gains repaid. The government, your government, can put this money to good use.
No investigation or case will be dropped or mishandled for lack of high-quality, experienced talent who can work with the Special Investigating Unit and other elements of government. My office is already scheduling my calls to these firms and we expect they will participate willingly in what is a crucial national duty and service. If your firm does not hear from us, call my office. Here is the number…
While we are speaking about the people and organisations identified in the “Zondo Report,” I have decided that anyone currently in an official position who is named in that report will immediately go on suspension until all matters are resolved, even if there are heavy political costs my administration must bear by doing this. I realise this may not be our government’s business-as-usual style, but we must begin to act as business unusual until the scourge of corruption is extirpated from our positions of public trust. I expect deputies or other senior officials will step up willingly to carry out those public duties until all matters are resolved.
In the same way, with our new corps of attorneys, I expect we will call upon firms of auditors to make their best and brightest, most eager auditors available to serve the nation to assist in the recovery of purloined funds. Here too, their parent firms will volunteer to pay their salaries while the auditors are on loan to the nation. While I will be busy speaking with law firms tomorrow, I anticipate we can start speaking to the auditing firms the day afterwards.
We know we have a huge reservoir of unmet social and economic needs on the part of our citizens. While we cannot, honestly, fund every need or desire from our currently weak economic position, and while it is dangerous to embark on significantly higher tax rates for already overstretched working-class and middle-class taxpayers, we can make certain that there are no wasteful or fraudulent expenditures; that there are no efforts to loot these programmes or divert their funds away from their needs. We will be appointing a special inspector-general corps to examine all of these programmes, and the person in that position will report directly to my office and he or she will have my full support in their investigations.
Concurrently, we will be examining our current social grant programmes to see where they can be streamlined or improved – or even enhanced – despite our current straitened financial circumstances. While this will not be a panacea, it will be a start.
At the same time, we will begin figuring out how to implement a special wealth tax surtax on the highest-earning taxpayers in the nation. The task will be complex and I do not expect it will happen in days, weeks, or even months; but it must happen soon so that our wealthiest citizens understand they are not separate and alone from the trials and tribulations of the rest of their countrymen and women. All proceeds from such a special tax, once implemented, will be safeguarded and ringfenced fiercely, and only used for broadly acceptable social and economic needs as publicly debated by Parliament, not decided by anonymous figures in dark rooms for special interests.
Land is, of course, one of the most emotive issues faced by our nation – and its unfairness in distribution and ownership is something with very deep historical roots. We cannot solve all of these questions immediately. But, what we will do is begin the process of retiring government-held surplus land holdings across the nation at all three levels of government. Not all of this land is suitable for agriculture of course, nor is all of it appropriate for living upon, given its soil conditions or proximity to heavy industry or pollution sources. But much of it is suitable and it is unpardonable that all these years later, we have yet to release most of that land to people who are desperate for a place to rest their heads, to raise their children, to rear their animals, or plant their crops.
Along with this redistribution, we will also convene a national process to draw practical, realistic lessons from nations that have actually succeeded in carrying out real land reform measures, nations such as the Republic of Korea and Japan, among others. Those nations underwent strenuous efforts to take large, landed estates and make them increasingly the property of those who already lived and worked on them. They received strong help from the government, whose modern agronomy science needs to preserve and protect the land for future generations. Land reform cannot just be about addressing old grievances; it must also look to the future for the country’s food security, amidst the challenges of global climate change. This will be an extraordinarily challenging task and we will need our best minds to work on it, again, not just the tired government-as-usual approach.
I also want to talk to my fellow South Africans about education. It is time we admit to ourselves, frankly and honestly, that we have a crisis in education. Or, rather, multiple reinforcing crises. Despite all the funding we provide for education, at a higher per capita level than most other African nations, far too many of our children fail to finish the full run of school years, and many of those who do cannot pass their final matriculation examinations. Of those who vanish from our screens in this way, they become a lost generation who have little hope of securing real skills and real jobs as they transition into adulthood.
Our technical schools must become closely linked to growth industries for the future, as well as to all of the more basic but essential technical skills to build and maintain our cities.
In tandem with this, we must work even harder than at present to make university education both affordable and cost-effective for students who have few resources. But this will be a task for several years to come, rather than simply something done by presidential decree. It may mean consolidating academic programmes between some schools with programmes elsewhere, or it may mean providing a much more coordinated approach towards funding that includes more contributions from the business sector and – crucially – more efforts by students to pay off their existing loans on time and in full so that future student cohorts can make use of those funds.
We are going to need to have a national conversation about this – and fast. The times demand it.
I have left our foreign policy questions till last for tonight, but, in short, they come from our unwillingness, so far, to focus determinedly on what matters to us most as a nation. Beyond anything and everything else, it is that our representation abroad, our expressions of our views in international fora, our public statements at home must all focus like that proverbial laser beam on our deepest national interests. And above all, that is our economic well-being and our ability to export products to existing – and new – markets abroad. Exports equal jobs, and jobs equal more employment for our citizens. That must be our first target. Of course, we must also have what Madiba called a “highly principled foreign policy”, but it must be consistent with our real needs as well as our urge to achieve a better, fairer world.
Finally, I want everyone listening tonight to understand just how much I believe that this fight for reform, honesty, civility and decency in government, and economy and efficiency in the government’s works is a personal belief. I am determined to reduce my salary and benefits by 10%, starting tomorrow, and I will be asking each of my ministers, deputy ministers and all other senior appointed officials to follow suit. Similarly, all official vehicles will no longer be purchased at costs higher than a medium-sized sedan without executive extras; travel will be by economy class on trips under 10 hours and business class only beyond that. Hotel accommodations will be in line with such restrained levels of spending. As needed, the Ministerial Handbook and related materials will be amended.
In closing, I want all of my fellow citizens to understand that we are all in this fight for a better life for all, together, not just for some. The flaws and inequities of the past are considerable stumbling blocks for us, but they are not insurmountable ones. If such things were, we would not have come this far from those terrible days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when it seemed our nation would break apart or collapse into a permanent state of civil unrest.
Now it is time to recognise our current difficulties and deficiencies and to address them and overcome them like the creative, vigorous, and energetic people we are.
But alas, the bubble burst and I realised this was just a hope and a prayer, and not the actual speech we would listen to soon. Still, perhaps the speechwriting team in the Union Buildings will find some useful ideas here among these pages for the next SONA.
Feel free to use them all, free of charge. DM
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