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Sona 2017: What one might wish President Zuma to address

‘I wish that he could target on three issues: labour, education and health’ – Thabi Leoka – economist, Argon Asset Management.

SIKI MGABADELI:  President Jacob Zuma is expected to deliver his annual State of the Nation Address in parliament in about 45 minutes’ time. But if we think about the past two years it hasn’t quite worked out that way. He might only start speaking much later. So if you think about the focus far ahead of his speech, it’s been really about the security arrangements around the parliamentary precinct, the deployment of soldiers to the City of Cape Town, what exactly the Economic Freedom Fighters plan to do to prevent or delay the President from speaking. The address really is meant to lay out the government’s programme of action for the year ahead. In previous SONAs we’ve seen the outlining, for example, of the nine-point plan, Operation Phakisa, the National Development Plan and so on. So what do we expect to hear from the President this time around?

Let’s chat to Thabi Leoka, who is an economist at Argon Asset Management. Thabi, thanks so much for your time today. Not sure if you’ll agree with me, but over the past couple of years SONA has been less about what the President says and more about what happens around him, hasn’t it?

THABI LEOKA:  Yes, unfortunately that has been the case over the past few SONAs because of opposition parties and disruptions and disturbances to his speech. In the past, at least last year, we saw SONA start much later because of disturbances.

SIKI MGABADELI:  So if you were to put a wish list forward, what would you want to hear the President highlight?

THABI LEOKA:  I’m glad you asked me that instead of what he thinks, only because it’s very difficult to see what he’d say versus what I wish he has to say.

I wish that he could target on three issues – labour, education and health.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Okay, let’s start with labour.

THABI LEOKA:  Labour – in terms of our having these discussions that are headed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on a minimum wage. Labour and labour rigidity have been an issue for South Africa since 1994, and the IMF and rating agencies and anyone who has an interest in South Africa has been talking about the structural problems. And among the main structural problems are labour, the skills mismatch that we have and the fact that we have this inequality within labour and labour markets. So I’d like for him to just focus on correcting that, including the role of unions in South Africa. And this also feeds into the role of unions and affects further education. And so a clarity on labour – what he plans on doing for the current labour structure that we have.

And then it feeds into education. I think that we need to talk, be honest in terms of what we want to achieve. Let’s get to the Fees Commission. And also I’d like for him to iron out the current funding issues  – from higher education to basic education and early childhood development. I’d like for him actually himself to focus on tertiary education, to actually focus on early childhood and basic education. And I think when we have that right, then we have the better result in terms of students going into university and coming out with a degree.

SIKI MGABADELI:  And that particular point, just around tertiary education – people may think it’s calmed down. It certainly hasn’t. If you look at Water Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape, many campuses there have shut down, some under fire. And I was watching students earlier today saying look, in the medium to long term we want to talk about free education. But right now we want to talk about free registration, because they are supposed to be starting classes in this week and next week.

THABI LEOKA:  I am involved in the Fees Commission and I think that I’d like for the President to also be honest in expressing the problems of the South African education system and the funding problem. I would like for him to then pick up goals about how we are going to solve this problem. And I’d like for him to reach out to the private sector and find ways in which to get involved in private-public partnerships to solve some of the education crises that we have and other problems – like infrastructure development – that require PPP relationships.

In terms of health, for me the health problem is a funding problem as well, and from what happened recently at Esidimeni I think that we obviously have a health crisis. I know that the government doesn’t like to speak of issues as “crises”, but I think we are at that point where we have 94 or more – large numbers of – people, dying, it is a crisis. I’d like for him to talk about ways in which to solve this crisis on the health side and to prioritise it from a policy perspective.

It’s one thing then to talk about what has happened in the past, but I think the policy also needs to go into costing – not only for education but also health. Whatever policy that we have, we need to put costing into it or else we don’t see implementation.

SIKI MGABADELI:  We’ll have to leave it there. Thanks, Thabi. Thabi Leoka is an economist at Argon Asset Management.

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