Jobs, energy, grants and graft – civil society breaks down what Ramaphosa got right and where he failed
These are the views of a broad range of civil society organisations and experts on what President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address means for different sectors, including youth unemployment, social grants, early childhood development, health and anti-corruption efforts.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) was an indication of the government’s priorities for the year to come. Some issues, such as the energy crisis, were tackled in considerable depth, others received less attention, while a few – such as the state of South Africa’s health system – went unaddressed entirely.
State of Disaster
The declaration of a National State of Disaster around the energy crisis is an “encouraging move” in the short term, but also a sign of the precarious position the country is in, said Zukiswa Kota, programme manager at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM).
“The announcement of the specific monitoring role of the Auditor-General is an important proactive safeguarding measure, given the risk to public finances,” she said.
Daniel McLaren, senior researcher and budget analyst at SECTION27, highlighted two key concerns about the declaration.
“One [concern] is that it’s used for budgetary allocations from other line departments, which is what it was used for – at least in part – during the Covid-19 pandemic, where funds were taken from education to fund the health response, and funds were taken from all sorts of other programmes,” he said.
“We’re worried that again funds will be taken and those line departments – health, education and social development, housing, etc – will suffer budget cuts in order to fund the response to the energy crisis…”
The second concern was rooted in the procurement problems associated with the Covid-19 emergency procurement under the pandemic State of Disaster.
“It was mentioned [in the Sona] that there would be some oversight mechanisms of the State of Disaster involving a range of stakeholders, but I would say that there were serious concerns from civil society about what this will mean for procurement in the energy sector, which is already well known to have suffered huge corruption and State Capture,” he said.
“This State of Disaster will have to be managed extremely carefully from the procurement side of things.”
The Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) welcomed the indefinite extension of the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant, which had been proven to mitigate acute poverty and hunger. However, the organisation said the President’s commitments on the grant had not been matched by the way it was administered in the past year.
“In practice we have seen ever more barriers being erected which prevent people from accessing the grant. Today, 3.54 million fewer people are able to access the grant compared with 10.9 million in March 2022. This in spite of the rising cost of living, and the President’s commitment in Sona 2022 to ‘expand support to poor families to ensure that no person in this country has to endure the pain and indignity of hunger’,” it said.
“This marked drop in the number of people accessing the grant is a direct result of National Treasury arbitrarily capping the budget for the SRD grant in the 2022/23 Budget.
“Although the President’s ongoing championing of basic income support is welcome, we need to urgently know more about the government’s plans for targeting the [SRD] grant, and how they will ensure, as a matter of justice and a constitutional obligation, that nobody is wrongfully excluded.”
Read in Daily Maverick: “Four key takeaways from Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address”
Isobel Frye, director of the Social Policy Initiative (SPI), cautioned against Ramaphosa’s commitment to roll out further “targeted support” for the most vulnerable people, advocating instead for a “universal floor” for people in need, with additional incentives for those who reach certain targets.
Global research indicates that targeting poverty relief keeps people in poverty, according to Frye. In a way, it penalises people for trying to make more money because they lose the security of relief programmes. This can be very dangerous for those who are extremely poor.
“A large body of international evidence shows that attempting to target income support to the ‘poorest of the poor’ in almost every case results in the exclusion of people who should qualify, usually the most vulnerable,” said the IEJ.
That South Africa’s grants are to be increased in line with inflation is a positive development, said Frye.
“It is something that SPI has called for directly to the President – that the increase needs to be linked to food inflation and not headline inflation, because food inflation is much higher,” she said.
“It is an incredibly positive acknowledgment that it can’t be business-as-usual of just making sure that the grants remain at their level or get a slight increase – there’s recognition that they have to cushion people against the impact of inflation.”
Youth unemployment and people with disabilities
Advocacy campaign Youth Capital welcomed the priorities set out at the 2023 Sona, but flagged the lack of trust young people have in a government that has made promises many times before.
“While the President acknowledged the systemic nature of the challenge, the speech failed to capture urgent timelines for bold solutions that can make a real difference in the lives of young people and their communities,” it said.
Technical and Vocational Educational Colleges (TVETs) could play a critical role in equipping young South Africans with the “right skills” for the job market, but at the moment they were severely underperforming.
“While we welcome the announcement of the target of 30,000 new students entering artisan training in TVET colleges for the current academic year, we can’t turn a blind eye on the fact that the number of TVET candidates who wrote the 2022 examinations decreased by 4%,” said Kristal Duncan-Williams, project lead at Youth Capital.
Solutions include promoting enrolment in vocational qualifications that the country needs, and ensuring that students complete their work-integrated learning and get certified, she continued.
Other “missed opportunities” that Youth Capital identified in the Sona were the lack of a relevant plan to power small businesses and the lack of focus on short-term work opportunities through public programmes.
Marlene le Roux, disability activist and CEO of the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, said that while it was good that the President was trying to facilitate access to the workforce for young people, she was disappointed that he did not once refer to young people with disabilities, who need tools and infrastructure for equitable access to work opportunities.
“There is no plan from the President, as if the lives of persons with disabilities do not matter. The President said over and over, no one must be left behind. However, persons with disabilities have been left behind,” she said.
“The President committed to meet with the Presidential Working Group for persons with disabilities before Sona. This was when he addressed this advisory group at the economic summit on 8 December 2022. This did not happen.”
Le Roux pointed out that the impact of rolling blackouts on people with disabilities was huge, yet no specifics were given as to how they would be assisted.
Early childhood development
Zaheera Mohamed, CEO of Ilifa Labantwana, said the State of Disaster around the energy crisis proved that tough decisions could be made by the government. However, these decisions were not necessarily being made in relation to early childhood development (ECD).
“I like the fact that [Ramaphosa] linked from ECD to the matric results… I’ve never seen anyone in the state or him do that before,” she said.
The commitment to streamlining requirements for ECD programmes and reducing red tape for potential practitioners was positive, continued Mohamed.
“I would definitely have liked to have seen… a little bit more about the plans, something around the targets that they’re maybe going to reach.”
There were some key concerns around children that had gone unaddressed, such as child nutrition, the situation facing those under two years of age, and the lack of support for pregnant moms.
“I think there’s a lot that wasn’t said. It would be really lovely, in future speeches, for him to think about bringing children into his speech a little bit more prominently, as really being the future of fixing up all the challenges that we’re sitting with today.”
The lack of any real mention of the state of South Africa’s health system in the President’s address is a cause for concern, according to McLaren.
“On the one hand, you can say health has featured so heavily for the last few years with the Covid-19 crisis that there’s a need to shift away, but the fact that there’s absolutely nothing said on health is concerning because there are a lot of priorities now in relation to public healthcare facilities in particular, but also the reform of the private healthcare sector,” he said.
“Implementing the Health Market Inquiry should be a priority for this president and this presidency. The signal is that it isn’t.
“It would lead us to believe that there will be a further deprioritisation of health in the budget in a couple of weeks, and also with education we’ve seen a deprioritisation in the budget in terms of the actual amounts being allocated, and budgets again not increasing with inflation.”
Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana is expected to present the 2023 Budget at the Cape Town City Hall on 22 February.
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Sibongile Tshabalala, national chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), said the TAC was “very disappointed” that the President’s speech did not address the state of healthcare with which South Africans were living.
“The state of health in South Africa when it comes to hospitals, shortages of nurses, [shows] we are in a deep crisis,” she said. “We were expecting the President to talk about that, to say how he is going to deal with it.”
South Africa is still dealing with incidents of xenophobia carried out by organisations like Operation Dudula, she continued.
“We thought that maybe the… president of the country will denounce what is happening where poor people are blocked [from accessing] health services in clinics, and what that means for other South Africans, because as much as Operation Dudula chases away non-South African people from the facilities, at end of the day, these people are also coming back to the community and they will be engaging with the community,” she said.
Tshabalala referenced the Ritshidze “State of Healthcare for Key Populations” report, released on 6 February, which showed that key populations – sex workers, LGBTQIA+ groups and people who use drugs – continued to face discrimination when seeking care at public health facilities.
“As much as South Africa, we have a beautiful Constitution that says everyone is equal in the face of the law… not everyone is treated equally,” she said.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Ritshidze report shines light on barriers to health services faced by vulnerable populations”
Procurement and anti-corruption
Several civic actors that make up the Procurement Reform Working Group have voiced concerns about the government’s lax approach to procurement reform and anti-corruption interventions, according to Kota.
“One example is the Draft Procurement Bill, which the President fleetingly mentioned and avoided making a decisive commitment [on] as to the timelines,” she said.
PSAM reiterated its call for the government to introduce open contracting to counter corruption and disrupt public procurement processes.
“There is an urgent need for the decisive implementation of recommendations that seek to safeguard such interventions against corruption and capture. The Sona’s silence on this was – once again – deafening,” said Kota.
Reuben Maleka, spokesperson for the Public Servants Association (PSA), said the PSA welcomed the President’s stance on strengthening the Witness Protection Act.
“Whistle-blowers are prosecuted while they are trying to assist the country and make sure that we do not plunge the country into further criminal activities or corruption. It is time that the whistle-blowers are protected,” he stated.
Read in Daily Maverick: “South Africa a step closer to a super Presidency after Ramaphosa’s master class in consolidating power”
The PSA was pleased that the President touched on how the findings of the Zondo Commission would be implemented.
“The country has regressed in the past years because of State Capture. So, if it’s true that there will be a fast-track of the implementation of the commission to prosecution, we welcome that,” he said.
The SAPS, SIU and NPA
Kota told Maverick Citizen the PSAM welcomed the increase in funding to the South African Police Service (SAPS), Special Investigating Unit (SIU) and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), as well as the decision to introduce the Investigating Directorate as a permanent entity in the NPA.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Funding boost for NPA, SIU, SAPS and courts, Ramaphosa announces in delayed address”
“We are encouraged by the President’s announcement in Sona 2023 to increase funding to the SAPS, SIU and NPA, which we hope will not only amount to real-term increases but that these will be effected in strategic areas to strengthen these entities’ investigative and prosecutorial capacities.”
However, Tshabalala raised concerns about the increase in SAPS funding and personnel.
“When [Ramaphosa] speaks about intensifying the SAPS services and making sure that they are fighting crime, what crime is he referring to? Because there is a lot that is happening on the ground and the police are there but they’re not doing anything. So, as South Africans, as poor communities, we have lost faith and trust in this system,” she said.
Business and greylisting
Paul Hoffman, director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa, voiced concerns over the fact that the President did not mention greylisting in the Sona.
“Greylisting was not mentioned, even though it may well be imminent because the criminal justice administration is too weak to enforce the law, including the newly minted legislation against terrorist financing and money laundering,” he said.
Ramaphosa further failed to address the need for trust in government, and concomitant business confidence, according to Hoffman.
“Both are necessary ingredients for boosting the economy,” he said. “These factors are necessary preconditions for achieving secure peace, sustainable progress and prosperity that is shared by citizens who have their inherent dignity respected while enjoying their guaranteed freedoms as set out in the Bill of Rights.” DM/MC