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The big talk at SONA is all very well, but where is the action?


Rebone Tau is a political commentator and author of The Rise and Fall of the ANCYL. She is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan-African Thought & Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.

President Cyril Ramaphosa cannot continue making promises to the people of South Africa without boldly tackling our corruption, governance and accountability challenges.

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) and like his previous ones, it was full of grand plans and a long to-do list. However, it is likely to remain just another speech as long as his government does not foster a strong culture of good governance, accountability and implementation.

Many of the challenges facing the people of South Africa are caused by poor governance and a persistent lack of accountability for government officials who transgress. For instance, despite a water project being launched in Giyani in Limpopo in 2014 and reportedly costing billions of rand, many people of Giyani still don’t have clean water six years later.

A more recent example is the policy on fee-free higher education, which former President Jacob Zuma announced in late 2017. In his SONA, Ramaphosa said the government had allocated R64-billion for student accommodation. It remains to be seen whether this will resolve the current challenges because many students are yet to see free education. They have to struggle and go through a stressful period at the beginning of each academic year. We have seen what has happened at some higher learning institutions during the registration period in 2020. While it is laudable that the government has allocated funds for student accommodation, what is worrying is the corruption that often accompanies the administration of such funds and the associated impunity.

This impunity is no longer confined to government officials, but is spreading throughout society. In Cape Town, criminals are burning and sabotaging trains almost at will and without consequence, leaving thousands of people without affordable alternative transport. The poor have to suffer and no one is being held accountable. Amid all this, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has been presented with a R1.4-billion project to revamp Cape Town’s busiest rail service. It goes without saying that without good governance and accountability mechanisms in place, these funds could easily go to waste without resolving the challenges.

President Ramaphosa also announced big plans for Eskom and the energy sector. The State Capture inquiry has unearthed some of the past governance failures at Eskom, and the power utility has also taken disciplinary action against some officials who previously held senior positions. While this progress is laudable, much more clearly needs to be done. For instance, Ramaphosa said there was an element of sabotage that contributed to Stage 6 load shedding in late 2019. However, his government still hasn’t communicated to the public exactly what happened and whether anyone has been held accountable.

Understandably, public patience is beginning to wear thin for law-enforcement agencies to arrest and charge those linked to State Capture and corruption networks at Eskom and its Medupi and Kusile power stations. These are the networks responsible for lack of maintenance and massive cost overruns that have resulted in the persistent load shedding South Africa is experiencing today.

If the government is unable to address basic issues of accountability in an efficient and speedy manner, how ready is it for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, for instance?

The government cannot wax lyrical about introducing coding and robotics for Grade R to Grade 3 learners while the quality of some schools is so bad, especially in rural areas. MECs of education and public works are not held accountable for the state of some schools in their respective provinces, especially when it is the less privileged children that suffer.

Ramaphosa cannot just continue making promises to the people of South Africa without tackling the corruption, governance and accountability challenges boldly. The Auditor-General’s reports are an annual reminder of how our officials lack good governance and are not held accountable. Mayors do as they please while people continue to suffer due to poor service delivery. Municipal managers will continue to ignore good governance because their political principals often promote a culture of impunity and only pay lip service to the real issues affecting the people.

Besides Eskom and Prasa, several other state-owned enterprises such as South African Airways, Denel and Transnet are struggling because of persistent poor governance and accountability. Ramaphosa needs to focus on reviving the spirit of accountability and good governance, or his SONAs will remain mere speeches with lots of plans and numbers, but no action. DM


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