“The days of messing up are over.”
This was one of the very few promises a tired-looking President Cyril Ramaphosa made during his State of the Nation (Sona) address in Parliament on Thursday.
He made this promise off the cuff, as it does not appear in the written speech distributed to the media. He made it in reference to the dysfunctional state of many rural municipalities and promised that only competent people would be appointed – a promise difficult to keep.
Unfortunately, this promise was the only acknowledgement of government’s significant failure in recent years, especially since Covid-19 hit our beautiful country.
I did not expect an inspirational speech, but his message would have sounded more sincere if he had taken at least some responsibility. He could have apologised for the corrupt, unethical and treasonous conduct of many officials – some even in his own office – during one of the darkest periods since the dawn of democracy. As the head of state, he should have taken responsibility.
Any sign of emotion from the president would have countered many South Africans’ emotional anger. Sadly, there was none.
His address was artificial with the sole goal of saving face. It lacked believability.
Many, I included, hoped Ramaphosa would announce some more stringent action to curb corruption. Apart from a new corruption council, he merely echoed his earlier statements that law enforcement agencies would be strengthened. He may underestimate the colossal impact the personal protective equipment-related corruption (and the recent revelations at the Zondo commission) have had on many South Africans’ psyche. It is not only the dishonesty and the looting of taxpayers’ money which caused the anger.
It is also the realisation that these officials, who are corrupt to the core, are also in charge of critical governance decision-making and functions – such as the procurement of vaccines.
It is this reality that will cause a lot more long-term damage to the economy than the pandemic. Covid-19 and the lockdown are not the main reasons for the current economic crisis. Corruption is. The economy was already in dire straits when the virus hit; Covid-19 merely fast-tracked the implosion of an already careworn economy.
Ramaphosa also missed an opportunity to talk about the deteriorating trust deficit in the country. This is a structural problem with its roots in the Zuma decade and one which has sent business-, investor- and consumer confidence to their lowest levels in decades. The stage was set for this even before Covid-19 hit our shores. An economy just cannot flourish if the main stakeholders do not trust each other.
In some strange way, Covid-19 could have been a blessing in disguise and offered South Africans an opportunity to unite against a common enemy. South Africans can work together if they share a common goal, such as the 2010 World Cup’s successful hosting. Covid was the ideal opportunity for all stakeholders to work together and rebuild trust and tolerance.
Sadly, Ramaphosa and his fellow ANC leaders allowed this opportunity to be stolen.
But not all was negative. Two announcements stood out
The first was that the local government election is on track to take place this year. This could be the most decisive election in South Africa’s history since 1994, as it will probably see the ANC losing even more ground in local governments.
The second is Ramaphosa’s announcement that there will be an amendment to regulations governing the private generation of electricity. Currently, anyone who wants to generate more than 1MW of electricity needs a licence, and it is virtually impossible to get one. There have been calls (from among others Eskom CEO André de Ruyter) to increase the threshold to 50MW, and if government concurs, it will be a game-changer.
Hopefully, the regulation is changed sooner rather than later. In fact, there is no reason why it should be later.