Cyril’s sonorous song of seduction

William Saunderson-Meyer assesses the President's fourth SONA address


SONA 2020 was perhaps the most anticipated state of the nation address of the post-1994, democratic era. 

It was preceded by acres of media speculation, literally dozens of columns and articles advising President Cyril Ramaphosa on what he should say. That’s not surprising, since it was delivered against a sombre backdrop of unaddressed economic collapse and uncontrolled social chaos.

But in reality, SONA is of exaggerated importance. It is not a tradition with deep political traction in South Africa. SONA always has been more focused on preening about imaginary actions than taking responsibility for actual ones.

In the Jacob Zuma years, it was a kind of sadomasochistic live-porn show laced with moments of pratfall comedy. A nation that was in the process of being royally screwed by its president and his unsavoury gang had its revenge — on this one night every year — when Julius Malema and his costumed clowns bated and mocked him mercilessly.

During the Thabo Mbeki years, SONA was dull and dutiful, one of those rare occasions where the philosopher-king would deign to show his face in Parliament. There he would annually expound with enchanting eloquence on the wonders of the coming African Renaissance, while his listeners were evenly divided between those snorting with derision and those snoring with boredom.

Much like the tacky red-carpet strutting by over-dressed politicians that precedes it, SONA is about show, not substance. African National Congress presidents are more prisoners than protagonists. 

The shackles of African National Congress policy, as Cyril Ramaphosa knows only too well, are forged by squadrons of activist members traded between external power-brokers. The irons are then clamped around presidential ankles at gerrymandered leadership conferences. There is not much room for presidential manoeuvre.

Given this — and the fact that this is Ramaphosa’s fourth SONA, since there were two in the 2019 election-year — it is a triumph of faith over fact that so many still have such high hopes of CR. This year, as every time before, the president spoke of the need for social compacts, social partnerships, and broad-based coalitions. This year, as every time before, the president mentioned the need for radical economic transformation.

That’s all well and good. Radical economic transformation, in its literal sense — stripped of its Zuma-code meaning of an elitist kleptocracy camouflaged as a benefactor of the masses— is necessary to share more fairly the national wealth. And that can only be achieved peaceably in a society as divided and multi-faceted as South Africa through social compacts that bring together disparate groups willing to make genuine trade-offs.

Most rationally, it would mean taking the economic mechanisms built over centuries and directing them in order to deliver more equitable, social democratic goals. One would be forgiven, then, for imagining that Ramaphosa would be seeking to harness the engine of the market economy to the aims of a developmental state. 

But that is not what Ramaphosa intends. He is not talking about compacts with the “old” power blocs of business, agriculture, mining houses, and investors. They are already on his side, captive allies with no alternatives. As he reiterates in SONA 2020, his administration will reward his docile prisoners with land expropriation without compensation (presided over by the cadres, not the courts) and with the dismantling of a world-class private healthcare sector.

So, when Ramaphosa talks about partnerships and coalitions, let’s be clear. He is addressing his recalcitrant, ideologically hidebound allies in the tripartite alliance, the unionists and communists who put him in power and on whom he is dependent to remain there.

These are the ones who, in SONA, he is nudging towards accepting the “stark reality” of economic stagnation, growing unemployment and failing SOEs. This is the constituency he is pleading with to accept the “stabilisation and repurposing” of institutions.

It is a telling indication of Ramaphosa’s continued weakness within the ANC that even at the 11th hour, his approach remains one of high-wire caution at best, timidity at worst. There were no big moves in SONA 2020, no indication of how the government is going to extricate the country from the pit of indebtedness of which Eskom is the direst, but by no means only, example.

Admittedly, there was some faint hope, for those of us desperate to be buoyed. Unfettering power production outside of Eskom and using alternative energy sources are welcome moves, albeit that they have been solutions obvious for decades to everyone outside of government. 

He rejects the left’s enthusiasm for raiding state pension funds when he writes: “The social partners – trade unions, business, community and government – are committed to mobilising funding to address Eskom’s financial crisis in … a manner that does not put workers’ pensions at risk and that does not compromise the integrity of the financial system.”

He even dares to use the verboten r-word, which the unions know is code for job cuts, in reference to the SOEs: “ We will undertake a process of rationalisation … and ensure that [the SOEs] serve strategic economic or developmental purposes.” Bye-bye, the national airline?

He wants to strengthen vocational and technical education as a way to equip young people with workplace skills. Nothing wrong with this but the lack of education basics — literacy and numeracy — remains critical and unaddressed because it would mean taking on an important ally, the teachers union, SADTU. 

Ramaphosa’s enthusiasm for increased training of South Africans abroad is similarly misdirected. As justification, Ramaphosa lauds the Nelson Mandela Fidel Castro Medical Training Programme — “a living monument to two great revolutionaries” — seemingly oblivious that the Department of Health is engaged in a three-year “downsizing” of the Cuban programme.

And although not publicly articulated, the reasons for the downsizing are obvious: the training that these doctors receive is of questionable quality and it comes at double the cost-per-doctor as that provided by SA medical schools. The money would be better spent on expanding and creating new medical schools here.

For the rest, it’s SONA’s usual transparent gruel of roadmaps, strategies and commissions; of “far-reaching” master plans and “fundamental” overhauls. Most conspicuously lacking is a sense of urgency, although everyone knows that what is needed is not new policies, but bold actions.

For better or worse, we have put our fate in the hands of Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the few good guys in the ANC gang. And despite years of presidential inertia, most South Africans continue fervently to believe in him — a Daily Maverick poll this week found that Ramaphosa has among the highest presidential approval ratings in the world, clocking an enviable 62%.

Our commitment is either an act of extraordinary faith or ineffable stupidity. Perhaps it is Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological defence mechanism where, counter-intuitively, those taken hostage or placed in an abusive situation bond with their tormentor/s. 

It’s a way of minimising the stress of imminent harm by ingratiating yourself with those who hold power over you. Eventually, you identify more strongly with those harming you than with those seeking to rescue you.

The only thing that’s still not clear in our own Stockholm scenario is CR's role. Is he, as his fans aver, the hostage, the thrashing captive of malevolent groups in his own party? Or is he the canny hostage-taker of an entire nation, the silver-tongued baddie with whom SA has trustingly fallen in love?

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye