There was neither pomp nor promise when President Cyril Ramaphosa stepped up to the podium to deliver his fifth State of the Nation Address to a near-empty parliamentary chamber on Thursday night.
Covid-19 lockdown restrictions meant that attendance was restricted to around 50 people: a few party whips, provincial premiers and a couple of judges were in the chamber and the bulk of the budget for the sitting was this year spent on streaming and broadcasting services.
Even Ramaphosa’s speech was basic and bare as the Covid-19 lockdown has left the government with little room to manoeuvre.
He said the government would focus this year on four priorities:
- Defeat Covid-19
- Accelerate economic recovery
- Implement economic reforms to create sustainable jobs
- Drive inclusive growth, and fighting corruption
This appeared to simplify the solution to a very complicated problem in a country ravaged first by a very severe lockdown, then by a Covid-19 death rate amongst the worst in the world (47 000 people are officially dead from the virus), and a recent announcement that the rollout of the first batch of AstraZeneca vaccines can not go forward as it is ineffective against preventing infection with the local N501Y.v2 variant.
Less confidence in Ramaphosa
“Poverty is on the rise,” Ramaphosa said. “Inequality is deepening.”
In the third quarter of 2020 the economy was 6% smaller than in the last quarter of 2019, and 1.7 million fewer people were employed in the third quarter of 2020 than the first quarter, just before the pandemic struck.
The country’s current unemployment rate is at 30.8%.
Valentine’s Day will mark three years since former president Jacob Zuma was forced to resign and when Ramaphosa took over, but even some of Rampahosa’s own supporters are growing uncomfortable with the slow pace of the reforms he promised in his first address.
“Workers feel the president who campaigned in poetry is governing in verse, and they are not impressed,” labour federation Cosatu’s general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali told journalists last year in August, showing a lack of confidence in the man they campaigned for ahead of his election as leader of the governing ANC in 2017.
Fixing the country and regaining trust is a Herculean task, so we have limited Ramaphosa’s list to the following eight:
- Fix the grid: Power utility Eskom is saddled with a R480bn debt. Ramaphosa announced regulatory reform measures to raise the licence-exempt cap for distributed generation projects to increase the grid’s capacity. This was underscored by a series of power outages the day before his address. Not everyone believes him. James-Brent Styan, who wrote Blackout: The Eskom Crisis, tweeted sarcastically: “The president’s comments on #eskom is such hot air. “Eskom committed to net zero emissions by 2050…” Cause there will be net zero power generation by Eskom?”
- Vaccine rollout: After a week of confused communication, Ramaphosa’s cabinet decided not to roll out the AstraZeneca vaccine next week despite having already acquired 1.5 million doses of it. But some scientists believe it can help prevent severe Covid-19 infection and is better than nothing for beleaguered health workers.
- Fast-track economic recovery: The governing ANC has already twice cancelled webinars to discuss its economic recovery plan, which it had to rework when the second Covid-19 wave prompted strict lockdown measures. Measures in place include: a R340bn infrastructure investment project, an increase in local production, an employment stimulus, the expansion of South Africa’s energy generation capacity, and billions in business support and tax relief programmes, as well as an extension of special Covid-19 monthly social grants of R350.
- Create more jobs: More employment opportunities usually tops the list of parties’ campaign promises in an election year like this one (local government elections are set to take place in the last half of the year). This year there were no promises of actual numbers, but Ramaphosa announced that the Presidential Employment Stimulus had supported the creation of “over 430 000 opportunities” in areas like education, arts and culture, business services, early childhood development and small-scale and subsistence farming.
- Stimulate social cohesion: Cooperation across racial lines is needed to help drive economic growth, but massive income inequalities are fuelling resentment. Ramaphosa drew on the memory of the late Nelson Mandela’s release from prison exactly 31 years ago to remind South Africans of their “resilience and courage”.
- Act against corruption: Ramaphosa has overhauled the leadership of the National Prosecutions Authority, which has moved on charging even political bigwigs with corruption. But thus far nobody has been successfully prosecuted and Zuma is refusing to appear in front of an anti-corruption inquiry into his term of office.
- Reshuffle his cabinet: This is not something Ramaphosa would have announced in his address, but having lost one of his key ministers to Covid-19, this is a chance for him to get rid of some deadwood, as well as one or two ministers implicated in corruption. With almost half of those in the party gunning for him, the president could also use a reshuffle to strengthen his hand.
- Reduce the public sector wage bill, which accounts for over a third of government expenditure: Efforts by the government to cut public sector wages by R160bn in the next three years have landed it in a court battle with unions, who are demanding full increases for the three years as agreed.
There are, however, the sceptics, such as the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, whose deputy president, Floyd Shivambu, said soon after Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address: “There is nothing different which he has said which he had not said before. And that amounts to insanity, because insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”