So, we learned something about President Cyril Ramaphosa from last night’s question-and-answer briefing with the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef). He listens to talk radio and reads the Financial Times of London.
These minor revelations show he’s more in tune with what’s driving the national conversation than what one would expect, as during his two years as president, Ramaphosa has given the impression that he was far removed from the daily concerns of ordinary South Africans, and that he is too tepid to act with haste when it comes to pushing through much-needed change.
Just a citizen
The exchange with the journalists also bared something else. He may be president, but it does not mean he is all-powerful. The more than two hours of back and forth with Sanef members revealed someone who is as frustrated as any other citizen when it comes to getting apparatus of the state to act with urgency to a pressing need.
When pushed, for instance, on the lack of prosecutions on corruption, he said he has long wanted these cases to proceed at a faster pace but understands the danger that comes with the state president getting personally involved in such matters.
“The day you have a president who will go out and arrest people, prosecute them, and jail them you should run for the hills.”
Although Ramaphosa was deputy president under former president Jacob Zuma, he indirectly laid the blame for SA’s stuttering justice system at he’s predecessor’s feet.
It’s not only the state’s “hollowed out” investigative and prosecutorial functions that frustrate him. It’s the need to engage with state entities he has no direct control over that can hinder the implementation of his agenda.
For example, he announced in February that radio spectrum, which would facilitate high-speed broadband services would be allocated this year. But this was recently stemmed by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) pushing this allocation out to the end of March 2021.
These kinds of roadblocks have led to him setting up execution structures inside the presidency. Under the usual cabinet setup, ministers generally have free rein when it comes to executing their mandates. Or as he puts it “coordination and implementation must happen from a central point” and that point is the president’s office.
Ramaphosa said this is especially true when it comes to projects that are meant to drive South Africa out of its economic slump. Stats SA recently announced that quarter-on-quarter seasonally-adjusted annualised GDP dropped 51% for the second quarter of 2020 as result of the Covid-19 five week long lockdown.
Read: GDP: As bad as expected
To recover from this slump, the president says the government has been consulting with a range of stakeholders through the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on coming up with a recovery plan. Ramaphosa said this plan, which is focused on infrastructure projects, was close to completion and that there are several projects that are “shovel ready”.
Although the government and the private sector, are working well together, it does not mean there are no points of contention. The R200 billion state-backed credit guarantee scheme administered by the banks was, for instance, meant to support small and medium-sized businesses which were suffering as a result of the lockdown. But even though the state would compensate the banks if these loans could not be paid back, only 10% of these funds have been accessed.
“I think it is scandalous that only R18 billion to R25 billion of the R200 billion has been allocated [almost six months later]. The government is prepared to stand behind this money. I’m not saying you should throw money away, but we say support the businesses.”
Even so, he said the country was moving in the right direction and that over the past few years it has steadily been building up capacity to execute its agenda.
“We are painstakingly putting things right.”