Hope is a dangerous human trait, but President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) 2019 provides some reasons to be optimistic.
Great speeches do not change a country’s moral trajectory, especially when the rot of corruption is as deep as it is in South Africa. But listening to Ramaphosa list the things he has achieved since addressing the nation last year, it is evident that a lot has happened under his watch.
In the nearly two-hour address, he stepped off the eggs that were stood on during last year’s speech after Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation, and tackled key challenges facing South Africa head on, offering some tangible solutions. The main highlights for me were:
- The creation of a new Scorpions-like unit within the National Prosecuting Authority to fight corruption. The key, of course, is the commitment to give the unit the resources and mandate to prosecute without fear or favour – and that includes ANC leaders. After all, it was the ANC who disbanded the original Scorpions in 2007.
- That Eskom remains the number one short-term threat to our economy. The announcement of the unbundling of Eskom into three parts is hopefully the first step to increased “private sector involvement” (don’t mention privatisation).
- The acknowledgement that unemployment is at desperate levels, requiring urgent interventions to accelerate job creation.
Despite Ramaphosa’s frankness, there were a few elephants in the room.
The biggest was corruption and the fact that many of those implicated happened to be sitting metres away from the podium. The state capture and other inquiries have revealed the extent of corruption within the ANC, government and the top leadership of the country.
The rot is deep, and promises to curb corruption ring hollow when implicated cabinet ministers applaud the announcement of anti-corruption plans.
We need to see the arrests of high-profile individuals and aggressive prosecution to restore any form of meaningful confidence in government.
This must include Zuma, whose absence was conspicuous, and his top state capture lieutenants.
Hopefully, we will see Ramaphosa and his new prosecuting deployments hit the acceleration pedal soon, maybe even as early as May 9.
Dire fiscal position
A second elephant, which perhaps did not receive sufficient airtime, is the dire financial position of the country. In a few weeks, finance minister Tito Mboweni will sketch a grim picture of the health of our state’s finances. We’ll see a budget deficit of nearly 5% and debt to GDP levels of 60%, excluding the potential impact of an Eskom bailout.
This means South Africa’s wallet is empty and the credit card is maxed out. There isn’t any money left to fund ambitious projects. In this context, it was interesting to hear Ramaphosa’s promises of increased infrastructure spending and increased investment to create jobs and accelerate economic growth.
I don’t know when the government will realise it cannot “create jobs”. You cannot simply write a law to create jobs.
Implosion of trust
This brings me to a third elephant: The total implosion of trust between the private sector and government.
The jobs South Africa so desperately needs can only flow from the private sector, where entrepreneurs invest in new ventures because they believe they can make money from the deployment of capital.
The ‘private sector’ in this context is also not the big multinational companies or brown-nosing CEOs flanking the president in Davos. It is the army of small entrepreneurs who work in the trenches of our economy. If Ramaphosa can restore their trust in government and the future of South Africa, job creation will accelerate quite quickly.
To achieve this, Ramaphosa needs to kill the first elephant.
South Africa requires a common goal
Ramaphosa also highlighted the significant racial tension and intolerance in South Africa. If this cancer is not cured soon, any projects to improve the social and economic recovery may be stillborn.
Ramaphosa can only address this if he can instil a new common goal to which every South African subscribes and will work towards achieving. We last had such a goal when the country pulled together to host the 2010 World Cup.
The best case scenario for South Africa would be if the fight against corruption will be this new goal, but that is probably hope talking again….
But all in all, South Africa is a better place today than it was in February last year. Yes, it is off a very low base, but hopefully Ramaphosa can keep the trajectory on the right track. Let’s see what happens after the election.