It is with humility that I write this blog reflecting on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2021 State of the Nation Address (SONA). Of course being an arm chair critic, it is easy to fault the President for delivering a speech that some called flat or even lackluster. Being the President of an overwhelming disparate country underpinned by desperation, marginalisation, vulnerability and just utter political, economic, and social despair only makes the job that more challenging, notwithstanding leading a ruling Party that does not do its President any favours.
While being mindful of the fact that position of power is stressful enough, a visibly frail looking Ramaphosa delivered the Republic’s 5th SONA address. And trying to ensure that a balanced SONA that was not all doom and gloom was presented proved to be especially difficult, which was reflected by the strain on the President’s face.
If there is one phrase to describe the 2021 SONA address for me, it would be this: ‘He tried’. But in the current circumstances of where the body politic of the country is, trying is not enough and on Thursday night it appeared that the Present was once again caught with his back against the wall trying to instill hope and confidence with his rally call that it ‘must be a year in which we rise’. While true that it is the ‘spirit of the people who revealed not to be defeated’, it cannot be that our leaders continue to implore on our incessant duty to make the sacrifices while circumstances around us remain the same if not worse. So as much as the President saw it fit to recognise that the true value of this democracy is its ordinary children of the soil who toil to survive, his speech unfortunately did little to capture the hearts and minds of the very people who are asked to remain vigilante and rise. And herein lies the dilemma for President Ramaphosa and his 2021 SONA. It hit the right notes at times but not the right tone.
The Missing Middle
In the run-up to the SONA, the hype was on what will be the focus of the speech. More importantly, there was much in the speculative mill that this was the SONA that will define the Ramaphosa Presidency. It was also a speech that will determine the performance of his Presidency in terms of his survival in the Party and hence as Head of the Republic. All in all it was to be the Speech of all Speeches.
Sadly, though, it became the SONA that was not to be.
To be fair, however, the speech was not going to be a ‘get of jail’ free card for the President or his Cabinet. In these extraordinary times, we cannot harbor unrealistic expectations that SONA would set an unprecedented roadmap for the country’s perilous crises. But a reasonable one would have been welcomed. One that would have added a little more substance than it did and at times addressing the missing middle in the speech. Of course in the traditional custom and nature of SONA speeches, it is not always the purview of the content to provide a blueprint regarding a programme of action. As on media commentator noted ‘its job is to inspire a nation through tough times’. Woefully this too was hard to gauge in the speech.
Leaving aside references to the resilience of the fynbos biome and its adaptability in a difficult ecology, the speech skirted some key issues that needed to be addressed.
The muted voice of National Treasury
Writing in the Sunday Times (dated 14 February 2021), the renowned journalist, Sam Mkokeli, touched on a crucial issue, namely that the input from the National Treasury was either a very light touch or altogether sidelined from serious contribution to the speech. This became hauntingly evident with the references made by Ramaphosa to the kinds of economic, social and infrastructure projects that would require financing from the 2021/2022 fiscus. What was striking was the waxy lyrical that Ramaphosa laid out regarding commitments to his investment facility and of course the renewal of the infrastructure financing infrastructure. But the muted voice of National Treasury raises serious about where does it fit in the broader scheme of things. Has Treasury’s importance, relevance, and significant role in ensuring proper checks and balance and keeping public sector spending within reason finally reached the fork in the road. In reading the Mkokeli article one could not ignore the reality that it seems that we have a ‘reluctant finance minister’ which does not bode well for international investors and credit rating agencies who are looking for some kind of policy coherence and confidence that the economy is being recalibrated towards the path of sustainability through growth. It is also worth mentioning that the age old battle around the independence of National Treasury seems to be finally reaching its shelf life date. Not to be alarmist but the impression seems that National Treasury has been systematically being pushed to the margins of its mandate. An issue that has been a contested battleground since 1994 for those who see macro-economic austerity as sacrosanct.
Foreign Policy Lite
As much as it is understandable that the domestic context remains the key theatre of concern and hence focus, it was intriguing that the President did little to reflect on the country’s strategic positioning in global affairs. One would have thought that after serving for a third time as a non-permanent member on the United Nations Security Council, and Chairing the African Union under a Pandemic, the President would have reflected on the achievements and gains that South Africa has made, especially in terms of vaccine diplomacy and procurment. In fact the President outlined more of South Africa’s actions in this regard during the ‘family meetings’. There was definitely a win there to be had if President Ramaphosa had demonstrated that together with India, both countries are advocating for the temporarily waiver of the intellectual property (IP) and patent rights on COVID vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The aim of which is for the vaccine to be treated as a global public health good, enabling, affordable, fair and equitable access for developing and poorer countries. This was ideal time to illustrate South Africa’s advocacy for global governance reform.
With South Africa assuming the Chair of the Organ on Politics, Security, and Defence in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), even this was not mentioned. This is a significant institution of SADC in dealing with regional security issues rising from inter-and intra-state conflict and natural disasters including Pandemics like the COVID-19 that amplifies human security exacerbated. To this end it would have been pertinent to highlight South Africa’s leadership in the region around peace, stability and development. Surely the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) cannot be sustained if instability remains an undercurrent of perennial disorder and fragmentation in Southern Africa.
A Systematic Implementation Framework
Normally the SONA is not the platform to provide a systematic implementation framework regarding the country’s economic and developmental agenda. But in these unprecedented times, it sometimes suffice to do precisely that and assuage the widening trust deficit that exists between government and citizens. This was precisely the opportunity that President Ramaphosa could have used to defy conventional dictates and, at least, unveil an implementation plan that puts certain timeframes into place. It is no use telling the nation that performance agreements have been signed with Ministers and, then, not delve deeper into what happens when Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are not delivered. The bureaucratic inertia that exists in the state bureaucracy is exactly why we have an inefficient, unethical, and non-developmental state. This is where the disconnect exists between the macro and the micro. The indigent of the country know what their plight is and would like to hear more a decisive and actionable speech. Setting up a land reform agency on agrarian restructuring, an advisory body to assist in eradicating corruption, a centralized model for standardizing ‘the governance, financial management and operationalization frameworks of all SOEs, while being noble in intent does not align with realities on the ground. Having another commission, agency or panel creates more institutional overlays notwithstanding throwing more financial resources to resolve the crises instead of dealing with its root causes.
Finally extending the R350 Covid grant for another three months may have struck a chord with those that need it. But, once again, how much longer such a stop gap measure can be sustained when the tax base is overburdened, and the economy, that was already in technical recession before the onslaught of the COVID Pandemic, contracted by 7.5% in the past year.
It was hard-pressed not to imagine that the SONA address was the speech that seemed caught in a time capsule of the South Africa that emerged in the immediate post-1994 period. And citing Maya’s Angelou’s poem ‘I Rise’, seemed apt for the optimism and inspiration we had as the ‘Rainbow Nation’. But that South Africa is fast becoming more of a distant memory. If anything the speech seemed more like Elvis Presley’s famous song ‘We Caught in a Trap’ with ‘suspicious minds’ all around. It seems now everything hinges on the budget speech. The proverbial question is what should we brace ourselves for. Maybe the Finance Minister will also quote from Maya Angelou’s poem; though this time with the right title: ‘Still I Rise’.
Ms. Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed are personal.