Opposition bays for blood in upcoming elections after Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation stump of a speech
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 'democracy’s child’ Tintswalo does not live in the same world as ordinary South Africans, say critics, after the President talked up the government’s achievements over the past three decades of ANC rule during his State of the Nation Address 2024.
The State of the Nation Address (Sona) was a taster of what’s to come on the election campaign trail – a tale of delivery over 30 years from the governing ANC, and a wisenheimer opposition smelling blood as pollsters predict the government’s slipping majority.
To personalise the ANC’s achievements since the 1994 democratic transition, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday, 8 February, recounted the life of “democracy’s child”, whom he called Tintswalo.
Her democracy benefits include free healthcare for pregnant women and children under the age of six, and school nutrition schemes – which democratic South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela, announced in the 1994 Sona – and track through to tertiary education financing and thriving in the world of work because of employment equity and black economic empowerment policies.
“Over the last three decades, we have been on a journey, striving together to achieve a new society – a national democratic society. We have cast off the tyranny of apartheid and built a democratic state based on the will of the people.
“We have established strong institutions to protect the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all people. We have transformed the lives of millions of South Africans, providing the necessities of life and creating opportunities that never existed before,” the President said.
“We have enabled a diverse economy whose minerals, agricultural products and manufactured goods reach every corner of the world while creating jobs in South Africa…” said Ramaphosa, who took the 21-gun salute below the Madiba statue at the Cape Town City Hall.
Read more in Daily Maverick: President Ramaphosa’s 2024 State of the Nation Address
Ramaphosa’s Sona comes after 30 years of ANC governments that started with Mandela’s speech in which he read The Child Is Not Dead, a poem written by Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.
“And so we must, constrained by and yet regardless of the accumulated effect of our historical burdens, seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny,” said Mandela on 24 May 1994. “The government I have the honour to lead and, I dare say, the masses, who elected us to serve in this role, are inspired by the single vision of creating a people-centred society…”
Thirty years on, Ramaphosa maintained the ANC had done just that.
The presidential employment stimulus and the youth employment intervention provided 1.7 million so-called work and livelihood opportunities, and put 1.1 million assistants into classrooms.
“Over the last two years, the number of jobs being created has been increasing every quarter, and we now have more people in employment than before the pandemic.”
Social grants, a longstanding-claimed ANC government achievement, today are paid to about 26 million South Africans, including 8 million Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grants of R350 that date back to the Covid-19 lockdown.
“We have seen the benefits of this grant, and will extend it and improve it as the next step towards income support for the unemployed… They are an investment in the future.”
Citing World Bank statistics that SA’s poverty rate dropped from 71.1% in 1993 to 55.5% by 2020, Ramaphosa added: “Our policies and programmes have, over the course of 30 years, lifted millions of people out of dire poverty. Today, fewer South Africans go hungry and fewer live in poverty.”
And he was upbeat enough to insist that rolling blackouts were behind South Africa.
“We are on track to resolve the most important constraints on economic growth by stabilising our energy supply and fixing our logistics system,” said Ramaphosa. “As these obstacles are removed, the true potential of our economy is unleashed.”
Ditching licensing thresholds of embedded power generation, and the tax breaks and other subsidies for rooftop solar, helped to ease the scheduled power shutdowns, which in 2023 were the worst on record.
“Through all of these actions, we are confident that the worst is behind us and the end of load shedding is finally within reach,” said Ramaphosa, as Stage 3 load shedding kicked in, and from Friday escalated to Stage 4 as Eskom stepped up maintenance.
Sona is usually the platform to announce the year’s governance programmes and priorities, but Thursday’s address was fudgy at best.
Aside from, again, hinting at the extension and formalisation of the SRD R350 grant and a focus to expand early childhood development, Ramaphosa announced a climate change response fund. Few details were revealed beyond how this fund “will bring together all spheres of government and the private sector in a collaborative effort to build our resilience and respond to the impacts of climate change”.
Sona seemed disjointed from the lived reality of South Africans outside the bubble of political elites.
No one but a Trumpian truth denialist would disagree that South Africa today is a better place than before 1994, during the apartheid dispensation. One only needs to look at Statistics South Africa’s regular household surveys over the past three decades. But South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world by any account, according to the World Bank.
And 30 years down the line, despite a constitutional democracy centred on a Bill of Rights, South Africans are more cynical, less hopeful and way more wary of politicians’ promises.
When Ramaphosa stood at the podium in the House, the cost-of-living crisis cut across from the poor to the middle classes and touched even those considered wealthy.
As rotational power outages knocked South Africans in their homes, businesses and at work like never before, the day before Sona, petrol and diesel prices increased by 75 cents a litre and 73 cents a litre, respectively. Additional transport costs affect food prices, which had sustained increases that were well above inflation. The consumer purse is threadbare.
South Africa’s deficit has increased to record levels as debt interest repayments are the fastest-growing Budget line item. In January, the World Bank dropped South Africa’s 2024 growth prospects to 1.3%.
It’s the reality check left to Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana when he delivers the 2024 Budget on 21 February.
Unemployment runs at 41.2% on the expanded definition that includes those too disheartened to even try to look for work.
Perhaps that’s why Sona was heavy on matters economic, and Ramaphosa stressed reforms in logistics, freight, rail, ports and energy.
Response to Ramaphosa’s Sona 2024
Organised business welcomed the presidential words highlighting cooperation on the crisis committees on energy, logistics and crime established over the past two years.
“As he [Ramaphosa] knows well, resistance from some in his own government currently frustrates progress. Business wanted clear indications of how blockages will be overcome to improve confidence that reform momentum will be maintained,” Business Leadership South Africa said in a statement.
The Minerals Council South Africa echoed such sentiments, saying in a statement that vigorous implementation of structural reforms was “necessary to encourage and facilitate the private sector’s participation in energy generation and transmission, rail and port operations and water reticulation”.
Opposition parties were scathing, slamming Sona as an election speech that missed the mark as Ramaphosa blamed State Capture for “the greatest damage” to South Africa.
DA leader John Steenhuisen spoke of “the arrogance of a President who is completely out of touch with ordinary South Africans” and in a statement pointed out “none of the promises made by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his last five Sona speeches has ever been kept…”
FF+ leader Pieter Groenewald in a statement dismissed Ramaphosa’s claims of crime-free environments and state hospitals so good patients prefer them to private hospitals as boasting. “Nothing can be further removed from reality,” he said, highlighting that the SA Human Rights Commission is looking into his party’s recent report on state hospitals’ decline.
And ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba said in a statement: “The story of Tintswalo, a resident of the Ramaverse, is not the lived experience of an average South African. It is the exception.”
The EFF boycotted Sona after its leader, Julius Malema, and five others failed in their court bid to overturn their February 2024 suspension for contempt of Parliament because of disruptions at the 2023 Sona by walking to the stage where Ramaphosa was speaking.
Thursday was the first uninterrupted Sona since 2015. Remember the signal jammer and the “white shirts” intervention team that included active police (and it went off in 90 minutes, with plenty of applause from the ANC benches)? It took place, for the third time, at the Cape Town City Hall as the National Assembly remains smoke-scarred and fire-damaged since the blaze on 2 January 2022.
Sona’s focus on South Africa’s 30 years of democracy was anticipated, given the pending sharply contested 2024 elections. In some ways, it appeared coordinated between state and party – and alliance partners. Trade union federation Cosatu, which previously was critical, went warm and fuzzy.
“President Ramaphosa’s tasks have been the most difficult of any President since our democratic state was born in 1994… [We] must equally acknowledge where government, led by our ally, the African National Congress, has done well.”
The SACP took a similar line. “The SACP welcomes the commendable progress that is benefitting millions of our people as a result of our hard-won April 1994 democratic breakthrough,” it said in a statement.
On Wednesday, 7 February, Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya set the tone in a briefing, saying an election date announcement would not overshadow the presidential speech.
“This State of the Nation Address is different and unique in so many ways … It is important that it is allowed its own expression, and that South Africans can take out of it the celebratory element of it…
“It is important that you allow these key elements to be expressed as much as possible without adding other issues.” An election date would be announced within 15 days of Sona, Magwenya added.
To underscore the success, progress and achievement messaging, just before Sona the Presidency released its five-year review.
“We have come a long way in the last five years. We have built on the achievements of the last 25 years and we have taken decisive steps to deal with difficult challenges,” read the foreword.
On Thursday, the ANC followed tack, talking “significant progress”, “dramatically improved access” and such.
“[Sona] is expected to reflect on the gains we have made as a nation as well as affirm our determination to defend our democracy from opportunistic elements that are set on undermining the unstoppable programme of transformation,” the ANC said in a statement.
Sona was the first state event that provided an electioneering platform; the 30th anniversary of the 1994 democratic transition vote on 27 April is another. Both take place against the backdrop of election polls showing the ANC losing its majority, nationally and possibly also in provinces such as Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
Just days before Sona, an Ipsos poll put the ANC at 38.5%, the EFF at 18.6% and the DA at 17.3%. A survey by David Everatt, a professor of urban governance at Wits University, for Change Starts Now, headed by ex-businessman Roger Jardine, showed the ANC stood at 42%, the DA at 19% and the EFF at 16%.
The ANC maintains it will score a “decisive victory”. Or, as Ramaphosa, the party president, told the January 8 Statement rally: “When they look at us and say the ANC is finished, when they look at us and say we are going to get less than 50%, that is said by people who don’t know us, who don’t know the ANC.”
From Saturday, the election manifesto launch season gets under way in earnest with the EFF’s manifesto launch. Back in the House from Tuesday, the Sona debate unfolds – expect politicians to dig down in the trench lines of the contested 2024 elections.
Outside the House and debates, South African lives tick on amid rising food, transport and electricity costs, crime and violence that in 2023 killed 75 people daily, according to the police’s own stats, and the meandering queues at government delivery offices such as Home Affairs, which, often offline, are unable to issue vital documents such as IDs and birth certificates.
Who delivers Sona after the elections is up to voters. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.