Maverick Citizen


Civil society gives Ramaphosa Sona resounding thumbs-down

Civil society gives Ramaphosa Sona resounding thumbs-down
A picketer with the organisations, South African Concerned Widows and Widows Voice, argues with SAPS officials as the picketers are moved away from the barricade around Cape Town City Hall. (Photo: Kyra Wilkinson)

Civil society organisations with a focus on social grants, education, and health were less than enamoured with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address on Thursday evening — with many describing it as repetitive, disappointing, and more like an election speech. 

Using the story of Tintswalo, a child born at the dawn of democracy, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) touched on 30 years of democracy and the progress made by the ANC.

These are the views of a broad range of civil society organisations and experts on what his address means for different sectors including social grants, health, and youth unemployment.

Missed opportunity and vague plans for SRD grant 

Ramaphosa said the benefits of the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant were evident, and the grant will be extended and improved as the next step towards income support for the unemployed.

Ramaphosa also said that social assistance has been shown to increase school enrolment and attendance, lower drop-out rates, and improve the pass rate.

Isobel Frye, executive director of the Social Policy Initiative (SPI), said the words of Ramaphosa were “underwhelming at best”.

“In the run-up to the 2024 Sona, many people viewed it as an opportunity for the government to end the sixth administration on a high note with the introduction of the universal basic income,  which would be building on the R350 grant that was introduced in 2020 and has been renewed each year,” said Frye.

“The 2024 national elections also opened the possibility that the ruling party would use Sona to provide an election promise to the majority of people whose lives seem to be in a repeat cycle of poverty and unemployment”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa’s electioneering and listicles of government achievements leave opposition cold

Frye said this came as a shock as there had been increasing suggestions from the government, particularly the Department of Social Development that universal basic income is on the table – with the Minister of Social Development commissioning studies around basic income support which recommend the roll-out of basic income towards universal income support.

“At the same time, we know that South Africa has the highest unemployment in the world and none of the employment creation programs come anywhere close to addressing the 11.7 million backlog of jobs or  800,000 jobs that are needed each year to absorb new labour market entrants,” she said.

Frye said the Sona was ‘very disappointing’.

“The opportunity to actually say to the nation that the government has got a plan to absorb people who have been marginalised by the economy was just completely overlooked and it seems quite unfathomable that there was nothing more concrete than the very vague plan to extend and improve the SRD grant,” she said.

Alfred Moyo from #PayTheGrants said it was a disappointing and repetitive Sona.

“There was nothing tangible that came out, especially for us as #PayTheGrants, the poor, and marginalised communities. There is nothing we can celebrate from the Sona,” he said.

“They don’t talk about the value of the grants, R350 nowadays has no value and the people who are being declined from accessing the grant are much higher than the ones receiving the money”.

Moyo also said he was expecting to hear Ramaphosa say that the SRD grant would be phasing into the universal basic income grant.

The Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) said it was ‘disappointed and underwhelmed’ by the President’s Sona.

“Many of the supposedly innovative proposals announced by the President are simply a rehash of tried and failed approaches to bring about development and were lacking in detail,” said the IEJ.

While the extension of social assistance to some unemployed adults through the SRD grant, and the introduction of public employment programmes have been positive in recent years, Ramaphosa sidestepped the National Treasury’s continued undermining of both interventions through repeated underfunding of grants and employment and job creation initiatives.

“While the SRD grant should be received by at least 16 million people, deliberate barriers to access brought in to stay within a lower budget allocation have made it so that only around 8.5 million people receive it,” said the IEJ.

Ramapohosa also did not indicate plans for the Presidential Employment Stimulus and provided no timelines for the commitment to use the SRD as a stepping stone for a Basic Income Grant.

“Overall, Tintswalo’s story, although shared by many, does not fully align with the reality of millions of young people in South Africa facing poverty, a lack of opportunity, and worsening access to essential services in the face of budget cuts, who are losing hope in the promise of 1994,” said the IEJ

Sona, SRD

Ramaphosa said the benefits of the Social Relief of Distress Grant were evident, and the grant will be extended and improved. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

Nothing new for basic education sector

Equal Education’s head of research, Elizabeth Biney said it was a regurgitation of previous Sona’s, and while Ramaphosa spoke about pressing issues for society broadly, there was nothing new he said for the basic education sector.

“It’s the same thing. nothing new, substantial, or concrete. We have heard these comments before about expanding access to Early Childhood Development [ECD] and trying to improve learning outcomes, but we don’t actually know what that means or how it’s going to look like because it never happens or we are still struggling to get there,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Promises, promises: Following up on Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2023 State of the Nation pledges

Ramaphosa said moving ECD to the Department of Basic Education was one of the most important decisions, as more resources could be devoted to early childhood development.

Biney said this was not fully fledged out yet.

“On paper, they’ve done the transition and they have moved the responsibility across, but we are still seeing a lot of ECD centres that are ‘informal’ so they haven’t been formalised properly and they cannot be regulated in the way that is required to ensure consistency and quality across the board,” she said.

Sona 2024, ECD

Ramaphosa said during his Sona that moving Early Childhood Development to the Department of Basic Education was one of the most important decisions, as more resources could be devoted to early childhood development. (Photo: Ilifa Labantwana)

When it comes to basic education, there is a fixation on matric results and these are often used as the litmus test for the health of the sector, but Biney says this is insufficient.

“When it comes to policy priorities, they tend to be very vague or broad. They say we are going to improve educational outcomes or learning outcomes but how? We increasingly see instances where kids cannot read for meaning by the time they turn 10 so how are we improving these outcomes? The matric results alone cannot be the measure of improvement of learning outcomes in the sector,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: International study shows most Grade 4s in South Africa cannot read for meaning

“We need more substantive, clear policies priorities are opposed to those vague ones”.

Disconnect between Ramaphosa address and realities of youth 

Kristal Duncan-Williams, project lead at Youth Capital said the narrative of Tintswalo ‘felt like a slap in the face’.

Ramaphosa spoke of Tintswalo, a child born at the dawn of democracy, contrasting her life with that of her parents.

“The President is disconnected from the realities of young people. We had many young people asking who is this Tintswalo because she is not us. it just felt so disconnected from the realities that young people are facing. The fact that this person [Tintswalo] studied at a TVET and just walked straight into a job is unheard of,” she said.

While Ramaphosa spoke about all of the achievements of the last 30 years,  he failed to address the shortcomings, glossing over the role the ANC has played in some of the challenges facing the country, said Duncan-Williams.

“He went on about the success of the Presidential Employment Stimulus and yet we haven’t had the Presidential Employment Stimulus roll out this year as it should have because the Minister of Finance has not come up with a detailed budget for financing it, so it really seems like the President sings from one sheet while the Treasury sings from another,” she said.

Duncan-Williams said Youth Capital would wait to see the outcome of the National Budget Speech, which will be delivered on 21 February 2024.

“The president has many promises to us before and they haven’t materialised so we will be waiting with bated breath to see if the budget backs up some of the promises the president has once again made,” she said.

State of the healthcare system barely addressed 

Anele Yawa, general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign said that Ramaphosa said nothing about the quality of healthcare services, instead painting a beautiful picture that many could not relate to based on their lived experiences.

“We are really disappointed in the President especially around his two paragraphs on health, because we feel that he should have said a lot about health in South Africa,” he said.

Yawa said that according to the World Health Organization Global Report, in South Africa, about 280,000 people are diagnosed with tuberculosis with 54,000 people dying of tuberculosis.

“If you are to calculate that, it, therefore, means a day we have about 147 people who are dying of tuberculosis, and the President said nothing about tuberculosis,” he said.

Yawa also said he thought the President would speak on budget cuts in the health sector.

“When our government is implementing austerity measures, they always focus on cutting the budget on health and if they continuously cut this budget on health what does it mean about the National Health Insurance Bill they intend to implement?

“It therefore means the state of our health establishments will remain in shame that they are in now. We will have few healthcare workers, people will always be turned away from the clinics because of the shortage or non-availability of medicines and medical supplies”.

The Sona was ‘disappointing’ and sounded more like a ‘political speech’

“The president never spoke about critical issues that affect our communities. We’ve got a high unemployment rate, we’ve got high levels of crime, we’ve got high levels of gender-based violence. He just touched on these issues in passing but never provided critical solutions,” said Yawa.

Petronell Kruger, programmes manager at Heala said there was no mention of the main killer of South Africans.

“Heala is focused on ensuring that there is healthy living for South Africans and in South Africa what we are really concerned about is the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases that kill two-thirds of South Africans,” she said.

16, 0000 people die of noncommunicable diseases each year.

“To put that into context, Covid throughout four years, killed about 12,0000 people and we have changed the whole structure of our nation and Ramaphosa referred to that repeatedly,” said Kruger.

“Yet, we did not hear anything about policy action on this issue which is very worrying”.

A positive takeaway was the decline in poverty.

Ramaphosa said that under the democratic government, there has been a consistent decline, from  71.1% of the country’s population living in poverty in 1993 to 55.5% in 2020.

“Over 50% is incredibly high, but it was really good that he coupled that understanding that it was still unacceptably high, saying that the SRD grant will be extended and improved,” she said.

“We understand that to mean that there will be an actual increase of that grant and that it is really key to ensure that South Africans have access to amongst other things, the ability to buy food.

“In the Eastern Cape, we had a report that 1 out of 4 children are stunted which is just a way of saying that 1 out 4 kids have such inadequate access to good food, that it has changed their body chemistry”.

Real commitment to realisation of rights is needed

Sasha Stevenson, executive director of SECTION27 said one of the most notable features of the Sona was the persistent reference to the Constitution, which was welcomed, but real commitment needed to be seen from the government to the realisation of the rights in the Constitution.

“We’re not seeing that. We’ve seen decreases in the health budget. We’re seeing a national school nutrition programme (NSNP) that is very valuable and has great potential but doesn’t extend to children in early childhood development centres who desperately need the kind of nutritional support that the NSNP provides. We see a lot of talk of tackling the scourge of gender-based violence, but we’re not really seeing the investment in the systems that could assist,” she said.

The focus on climate change and green energy was promising and a result of the country seeing the impact of climate change, said Stevenson.

“We need to make sure that in addition to producing green energy and the jobs associated therewith, that the systems that we have, including the health and education systems, are able to be resilient to the impacts of climate change, that health facilities can cater to the new challenges that they’re going to cater to, and that they are infrastructurally sound, given what’s going to happen in climate change,” she said.

Much of the Sona was a summary of the last 30 years, and not enough was said about the future.

“What the country really needs is a government that is looking into the future that’s going to improve the lives of everyone in South Africa, and I think we didn’t see enough of a forward-looking view,” said  Stevenson.

“The most important indication of the commitment of the government to improving lives will of course, be in the budget speech coming up at the end of this month. We will see what is being invested in these pivotal social systems that either help or hinder the realisation of constitutional rights.” DM 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    There is something deeply distasteful about a billionaire beneficiary of his parties BEE policies crowing about the provision of R350 grants to people impoverished by policies of the same party.

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      I can only agree! In the SONA, Cyril has tried to turn every negative into a positive: More people are receiveing the pathetic social grant, wow, but no mention of how this is emphatically linked to unemployment. A great opportunity arises out of the troubles in the middle east as ships reroute around Cape Point but the truth is that SA cannot make anything from this as our ports can’t handle the extra shipping and rail can’t handle the extra cargo. This is all while Cyril crowed about the fcat that the number of ships lying off ports reduced from 60 to 12 but no mention of the immense damage this has done to our economy and to SA’s reputation. It is all so frustrating. The powerhouse of Africa run by tsotsies, eisch.

    • Derek Jones says:

      Exactly Mike, deeply distasteful.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    ‘Less than enamoured’ must be the understatement of the year so far.
    Same Shit, Different SONA – SSDS

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Ramaphosa’s party has ruled SA for 30 years. All the problems he has been heroically addressing are of the ANC’s own doing.

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