As we gather to reflect on what the president will tell the people in his third State of the Nation (SONA) address, what we are bound to hear is the usual talk of the good things to come, the plans to create jobs, how the government intends to stimulate the economy and of tackling corruption.
The reality, however, is that much of the same has been stated in the SONAs of yesteryear, with very little, if anything, of intended having come to fruition. Not the jobs, the growth, the reduced inequality, the improved education, toilets, housing, jail time for corrupted officials. Nothing!
Plans we have aplenty, some with great intentions such as the National Development Plan (launched in 2012), the Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011), the National Anti-Corruption Strategy (2016) and many others. Yet despite years of talk, these decisions simply remain as ideas that have yet to be implemented. This is our greatest challenge in South Africa — to put our good plans into action.
Presenting an honest address about the state of our nation requires that our president reflects on the real position we find ourselves in today. Judging by the various pictures depicted in many international benchmarks and rating agencies, ours is a nation punching well below its weight, be it industrial output, mining, tourism, education, healthcare, security, governance and general administrative efficiency. It is not a pretty picture at all.
The problem is that presidential SONA speeches are generally premised on what the president thinks we want to hear as if it was an electioneering speech. But what we need to hear is the shocking and unpleasant truth. Just as a good doctor scolds the unhealthy lifestyle of a drug abuser, so too do we need to hear from leadership the hard facts and a thorough dressing down on why we slipped to the edge of the economic precipice.
Included in his SONA speech should be that which must change if we are to reverse our critical plight. From this must come the messages that ought to resonate and ripple throughout the public and private sectors, along with the fear of real consequences if this change doesn’t transpire… serious and painful accountability.
The honest truth about the current state of our nation should include aspects and remedies such as:
Massive and unaffordable debt arising from irresponsible borrowing and increased asset values in SOE balance sheets, sweetened by government guaranteed bonds to lure financial institution loans. The remedy must include stricter accounting rules and civil oversight to halt reckless trading and charges brought against boards that behave irresponsibly with state funds. No more borrowing until the debt is substantially reduced.
The dismal quality of our education system along with the culture of violence and entitlement at schools is a grossly unacceptable reflection of the deterioration of our society. Our remedy must now include a meaningful clean-up of education. Lowering the pass rate is not the answer. Instead, we should be increasing the pass mark along with the quality of teaching competency. In addition, the construction of all schools with good-quality facilities and sanitation must take place before we spend another cent on ministerial accommodation, cars and perks.
The quality of our state hospitals and clinics should be viewed as an embarrassment and failure of the government to instil dignity for all its citizens in need of reasonable healthcare. Why have we come to accept a difference in the quality of care and service received at state facilities when compared with that at private hospitals? The remedy must include stringent action and the harshest levels of accountability for wasteful or corrupt expenditure or the failure to achieve high standards at state healthcare facilities.
The bail-out of state-owned institutions should no longer be tolerated. Obvious remedies must include a decision on which SOEs are crucial to the functioning of the state, and to sell off every non-essential treasury-draining entity. Obviously, engagement with labour will be essential to ensure disposal in a responsible manner that minimises job losses, but dispose we must.
The dismal demise of municipalities requires urgent attention. It can no longer be business as usual and civil society oversight with organised community involvement is now an urgent imperative to remove inept and corrupt conduct within local government management.
The low levels of investment and job creation must be reversed through numerous economic stimulation initiatives that are meaningful and sustain long-term growth.
The unacceptable incidents of corruption with impunity, contributing directly to our economic decline, must end forthwith. The remedy must be absolute accountability to be introduced through a host of meaningful and internationally tried and tested anti-corruption strategies. In addition, performance management processes with strong civil oversight must be instituted, ensuring that competency is achieved through high standards and that all public service positions are filled by people with suitable qualifications.
Stimulation of a new dawn requires new tough rules to be laid down and austerity measures with consequences to drive a more active and ethical citizenry.
Integral to an improvement in the state of our nation is a strong call to duty and leadership from the top, with meaningful and executable plans. The public should be unleashed at the coalface of exposing and uncovering all that does not align with nation-building, including corruption and maladministration.
Give us an honest SONA Mr President, warts and all, along with the bumpy and uncomfortable road we must still travel to get out of the hole that your predecessor left us in. Only then will your SONA speech be taken seriously and the impact thereof will reverberate throughout the nation, to drive the real work that must ensue.
Tell it like it is, President Ramaphosa. DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott