President and nation at odds over country’s future

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the 2023 State of the Nation Address (SONA). Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the 2023 State of the Nation Address (SONA). Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 12, 2023


Prof. Bheki Mngomezulu

The purpose of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) is threefold. Firstly, it reflects on the promises made in the previous SONA. Secondly, it informs the nation about the current state of affairs – including what has been achieved since the last SONA and which items have not been acted upon or which goals have not been achieved and why. Thirdly, it maps the way forward by highlighting government’s plans for the current year.

In a way, the President touched on all three areas. However, his speech was riddled with structural challenges. The speech was not organised in a coherent manner. This made it difficult to see what its focal points were or how the President has done his self-assessment on each of the 2022 promises.

The manner in which the President began his address did not instil confidence. He began by saying that the nation is not defined by oceans, rivers, minerals or languages. Instead, he averred, “We are, at our most essential, a nation defined by hope and resilience.”

While this is factually correct, the context is of utmost important. Many promises have been made by government. Good policies and legislation have been crafted. But implementation has been lagging. As such, people have been hoping against hope. The question is: for how long? Indeed, the nation has been resilient as evidenced by apartheid brutality, Covid-19 and loadshedding, among others. But such resilience should not urge government to lower its guard just because the nation has devised survival strategies.

As expected, the issue of the energy crisis dominated the President’s speech. Secondly, many other critical themes found expression in the SONA. Among them were: crime, water issues, infrastructure, corruption, transport, education, telecommunication, gender-based violence, unemployment, social grants, investment, climate change, as well as international developments, to name just a few.

As mentioned earlier, the main challenge is that these themes were not articulated in a cogent manner. Consequently, some of them received more airtime while others were submerged to the level of being almost invisible.

The SONA had both consistencies and surprises. Each of these threads need close scrutiny. One of the consistencies was the disruption which took place as the SONA began. The EFF had made a promise that it would take the President head-on and did exactly that. In principle, the EFF had a point. The President has taken parliament to court with the Speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, being one of the respondents. It was strange, therefore, for the President to come and address parliament. On the other hand, since the matter is before court [is sub judice], the status quo remains.

The second consistency is that the President enumerated a number of successes which the general public does not see. This optimistic picture was painted in areas such as investment, job creation (including the positive impact of the Presidential Employment Stimulus), infrastructure development and uprooting crime. This positive tone is not new.

Another consistency was that the President made many promises of better things to come. These included the removal of red tape so that businesses could access funds easily and employ more people. The social compact is said to be at its final stage. Through the eyes of the President, the country is on an upward trajectory and the nation should lend a helping hand to enable government to deliver on its promises.

But there were also some surprises. One that stood out was the announcement that a Minister of Electricity will be appointed and will be stationed in the Presidency. I doubt if the ANC as a collective saw this coming. All along, the talk has been to unbundle Eskom as a way of improving its efficiency. It remains unclear what this new Minister will do differently.

Having the Minister of Energy and the Minister of Electricity does not make sense! What the country needs is to establish the causal factors for Eskom to fail to deliver on its mandate. Surely, the problem cannot be the absence of the Minister of Electricity. This decision is tantamount to dealing with the symptoms of an ailment without establishing its root causes. It does not matter how many ministers we appoint as a country. As long as we fail to get the basics right, the electricity challenge will continue. The money that will be used to pay this new minister could be used to commission a study that would identify the root causes of the energy crisis in the country – assuming that we do not know currently what those causes are.

Another new development in this year’s SONA was the official declaration of the State of Disaster on electricity. In principle, this is a necessary move because it will enable government to shift financial and other resources towards the energy sector. However, the downside of it is that unless stringent rules are put in place and actually implemented, some might use this opportunity to engage in corrupt activities. We saw this during Covid-19.

Once procurement processes are by-passed to accelerate the pace of service delivery, the potential for corrupt activities increases exponentially.

The plan to table the Energy Regulatory Amendment Bill with the view to transform the energy sector is a welcome initiative. This move is meant to establish a competitive electricity market. As long as the plan is executed properly, it might assist government in achieving its intended goal. The general understanding is that current mechanisms are not enough to take the country out of this menace of load shedding with all its evidently disastrous ramifications.

Linked to the above is the President’s announcement that government has allowed private developers to generate electricity. In this regard, he announced that there were already more than 100 projects in existence. He hopes that they will produce an estimated 9000MW of new capacity in the immediate future.

These are but some of the new initiatives that were announced by the President. Most of them look good on paper. The next step is for these ideas to be implemented. I have my overall views about this year’s SONA. Firstly, I fully agree with what the President did by dedicating a big chunk of his address to the energy sector. This is one area which is at the centre of the country’s many challenges. Once the electricity crisis is sorted out, other issues would be easier to address.

For example, having constant power supply would boost investor confidence. An increase in the number of businesses would absorb a significant number of the unemployed population.

Moreover, some people would be motivated to start their own businesses. In the process, the country’s economy would grow. The removal of load shedding would also somewhat reduce crime, especially in the townships where incidences of crime increase each time power goes off. For these and other reasons, the President was right to give electricity more focus.

My main concern is the manner in which the SONA address was structured. Ideally, the President should have started off by reminding the nation about the five priority areas he presented in his 2022 SONA. Secondly, he should have gone through each item to state how his government has performed. Where he experienced some challenges, these would have been highlighted and then plans announced as to how they will be resolved. Only after this had been done would the President make new promises.

The manner in which the speech was structured meant that, some themes did not receive clear expression. For example, given the high rate of youth unemployment, one would have expected the President to discuss this issue directly, and provide clear strategies which government will employ to address it. The same goes for many other themes which are included in the SONA but lacked substance.

There is one issue which was covered at the ANC’s Lekgotla but was omitted from the SONA. The ANC announced that South Africa will be free from crime by 2030. This was a very bold but controversial statement to make. If this resolution was as important as the one of declaring the energy crisis a National Disaster, why was it left out of the SONA? This question is important because crime statistics are alarming. The number of people who are murdered everyday paints a bad picture of the country. This is only one category of crime. There are still other crimes such as rape, car theft in places like Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Not addressing this issue was a missed opportunity.

In a nutshell, the 2023 SONA identified relevant themes which speak to the country’s challenges. The President tried to cover enough ground. However, the manner in which he packaged his address did not allow him the opportunity to articulate his points well. The address had structural deficiencies. It was clear that there are old themes that have been retained. New issues were also tabled with some being controversial – one being the Minister of Electricity.

*Prof. Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University