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SONA 2023 ANALYSIS

A restive South Africa and a roiling ANC — can President Ramaphosa seize the moment?

A restive South Africa and a roiling ANC — can President Ramaphosa seize the moment?
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation Address in Parliament, Cape Town, on 13 February 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

Much rides on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2023 State of the Nation Address on Thursday, which opens the parliamentary calendar and kicks the political year into full swing. That much is riding on the address holds even more true given the 2024 elections, a seemingly intractable energy crisis, and political noise, also from within the governing ANC.

When he delivered the “Thuma Mina” State of the Nation Address (Sona) in February 2018, it was widely seen as President Cyril Ramaphosa drawing a line in the sand to end State Capture and rebuild constitutional governance, economic growth and service delivery. That message of “send me” — in anticipation of renewal — came two days after his predecessor Jacob Zuma’s late-night Valentine’s Day resignation as president.

Although Ramaphoria seemed to be on the wane, thuma mina also trickled into Ramaphosa’s post-2019 election swearing-in.

Having taken the oath of office I am saying, yes, South Africa, thuma mina. And I pledge here today that I will serve you, I will work with you, side by side, to build the South Africa that we all want and deserve. A new era has dawned in our country.” 

Five years later, the controversy of US dollars stuffed into a sofa at the President’s Phala Phala game farm hangs over Ramaphosa. While he’s rejected claims of wrongdoing — and is challenging a recommendation to Parliament that an impeachment inquiry could proceed — criminal and Public Protector and SA Reserve Bank investigations into the source and legality of the forex remain ongoing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Phala Phala report – no good options for President Ramaphosa or our country

Public trust in government has hit a low — it’s in the 30-percentages, according to public opinion surveys that track such things long term — and public confidence is at rock bottom after rolling blackouts for more than 200 days in 2022 and every day thus far in 2023. Economic growth has been significantly revised down -0.3%, according to the South African Reserve Bank, indicating the impact of rolling blackouts; meaning jobs remain scarce and about half of South Africans rely on social grants to keep the wolf from the door. 

Against this comes the noisy agitation for a Cabinet reshuffle to assert in government the comfortable win Ramaphosa attained in being re-elected as governing party president at the December 2022 ANC elective gathering. Curiously, much of the noise comes from the President’s own camp, although others move to assert different dynamics within the ANC, particularly with a view to the 2024 elections. 

With a Cabinet reshuffle the prerogative of the President, the extent to which Ramaphosa is prepared to listen to country above party in making his executive choices will emerge only when the announcement is made.  

A restive South Africa; a roiling ANC. It’s a strategic moment in time for South Africa and its constitutional democracy.

So, while a rousing Sona on Thursday in which Ramaphosa sheds his acquired sibilance would be nice to have, it will not be sufficient; nor will the tightly controlled and orchestrated optics, and PR moments of Ramaphosa, whose presidency has centralised powers unto itself and his administration. 

Not another plan, not another initiative — or even another State of Disaster, this time on energy, as a quick-fix deflection from the fact that implementation is South Africa’s hamartia.

Needed: a Cabinet able to inspire confidence

Business Leadership SA and Business Unity SA, in a recent letter, urged Ramaphosa to appoint “a Cabinet able to drive urgent implementation across a broad range of areas with detailed knowledge of the complex issues to resolve” — and by doing so, inspiring confidence not only in South Africans, but also investors and others. 

“Given the slow pace of implementation of reforms historically, many investors simply don’t believe our plans. To shift this view, they will need to see consistent on-time delivery of these milestones,” the letter states.

But when the political is tied with the governance — gaining control of the levers of power and putting the state, developmental or not, front and centre remains ANC policy — sometimes the optics are just easier.

Particularly as the ANC’s alliance partner, labour federation Cosatu, didn’t mince its words in a statement on its expectations of Thursday’s presidential speech.

“The President needs to know that this Sona will have political consequences because the public will be giving their verdict in 15 months’ time. What happens in the next few months will be watched closely by workers and South Africans in general,” Cosatu said.

Ahead of this Sona, the Presidency released what it called a “handy booklet”, the One-Year Review of the 2022 Sona commitments.

It’s a massaging of the upbeat delivery messaging. It uses words like “initiate” and “review”, not “completed” — sometimes the glossy brochure shows a tick in a box hinting at completion even if that’s qualified.

For example, the 100MW embedded power licensing threshold increase is ticked off in the 2022 Sona commitments One-Year Review. Except this happened in mid-2021. And the embedded power licensing threshold increase already featured as “Reform Completed”, according to the Operation Vulindlela Q1 2022 Update released in May of that year. 

By Q2 2022, the spectrum auction — the release of high-speed broadband — was also ticked off as “Reform Completed” by Operation Vulindlela, the joint initiative since October 2020 between the Presidency and National Treasury to deal with crucial structural reforms across government, including energy and skills visas, freight transport and communications. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

But, unticked in the One-Year Review of 2022 Sona commitments is the box for a Water Resource Infrastructure Agency that’s envisaged to improve and coordinate water supply systems and leverage investments for this. Yet, that was a definite green “in progress, on track” in the last Operation Vulindlela Update of May 2022.

Then, there was talk of how draft legislation would be ready for Cabinet approval ahead of tabling in Parliament before 2022 was over; that draft legislation was finally released for a round of departmentally managed public comments in September 2022. But by then the Water Resource Infrastructure Agency had moved into Operation Vulindlela’s “stalled” category.

Unticked also is the box “Conclude a detailed agreement for the $8.5-billion Just Energy Transition Partnership”, although the framework was published. 

Instead, Daniel Mminele, who headed the presidential climate finance task team that led the just transition financing and planning, left the Presidency when his contract expired in December 2022. According to Business Day, the Presidency offered him a new contract only belatedly.

This emerged after outgoing Eskom CEO André de Ruyter in January told the parliamentary spending watchdog, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), how Indonesia had secured billions for its just energy transition financing because “they are very nimble… and very committed in decision-making”.

More fudgy is the tick in the box against the 12,000 new police personnel that Budget 2022 provided money for after the 2022 Sona. That blue tick means it was achieved in October 2022, but the explanatory note next to it states that only 9,700 police have completed training, with 550 still in training.

Ditto the orange tick, meaning done by February 2023, next to implementing the recommendations from the expert panel looking into the causes of the July 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The note next to the tick states: “Several recommendations have been implemented, while others are still under way.”

The devil is in the detail of delivery, even when it’s driven by the special focus from the Presidency-based Operation Vulindlela.

A new plan is not necessarily needed, given what’s already in place, such as the October 202o Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. But what is crucial is a clear recommitment and articulation with set timeframes — not controlled pretty presidential optics — alongside an accountability mechanism beyond prattle and platitudes. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • - Matt says:

    Come on President Ramaphosa, just DO SOMETHING. Your presidency started with such promise and hope, but it’s been an abject failure since then. There is so much to do. Choose some stuff AND DO IT. Move us forward.

  • Rory Short says:

    It is not in the nature of the ANC to do anything other than steal so to expect CR to do something useful is just wishful thinking.

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