Decoding SONA 2019 (II)

William Saunderson-Meyer says President Ramaphosa's address was like a Rorschach test


Thursday night’s State of the Nation (SONA) address was like a Rorschach test, with President Cyril Ramaphosa playing the role of the nation’s avuncular psychiatrist.

What is to be read in this SONA before our eyes? Is this water for our parched throats? Or is it just another politically conjured mirage?

Like psychologically troubled patients decoding ambiguous inkblots, we earnestly tried to discern in the president’s vaguely sketched air castles and careful non-specifics the true shape of our national gestalt. Each of us would respond according to individual need — the weary would have seen succour, the frightened would have found reassurance, and the sceptical would have gazed into a chilling void.

CR chose to proclaim “a dream”. We need a “new social compact” and “to cast our sights on the broadest of horizons”, he said. 

If you thought you might have heard some of it before, you are right. This is Ramaphosa’s third SONA in just 18 months, and there’s also been an African National Congress election manifesto, all full of fluffy clouds and unicorns.

There’s nothing innately wrong with an upbeat SONA. After all, South Africans, after a decade of disaster and gloom, could do with some optimism and encouragement. We could certainly do with a sense that our government has at last settled on a firm attainable destination and has charted how to get there.

And like all politicians, throughout history, have instinctually known, the “vision thing” is important in changing the national mood. 

In 1940, in the depths of Britain’s national despair after the Dunkirk evacuation, Winston Churchill stiffened spines with the promise that if everyone rallied to the cause, Europe and the world would “move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”. In 1963, in the darkest hours of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech enlisted a critical mass of Americans, to turn the tide against institutionalised racism.

Unfortunately, CR’s dream skirts such big, existential issues. Forget about addressing an increasingly divided nation that is tearing itself apart, what most fires the imagination of the president is a bullet train that will traverse the country from one end to the other. To be precise, from Musina to Cape Town, travelling via Pretoria, Johannesburg and Buffalo City. It’s not clear why Buffalo City is preferred to Durban, but there you go.

Oh, and please, Father Christmas, a new “smart city” — “the first entirely new city built in the democratic era, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories … founded on the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution”.

There were other components to the dream. Few came with any semblance of a convincing plan as to how they would be implemented.

Crime will be halved within a decade by increasing the police training intake by an extra 4,000 people, through greater professionalism, and through a “society-wide” response to violence. The Special Investigations Unit has in its sights the imminent recovery a princely R14.7bn of the many hundreds of billions stolen during the years of state capture.

International tourism will double by 2030 through the introduction of a “world-class” visa regime. Public land will be released for urban housing and rural farming.

Eskom will be rescued by passing a new appropriation Bill that will provide a “significant proportion” of the R230bn needed for it to remain operative. The Reserve Bank will remain independent. Very soon, every child “will be able to read for meaning”. Our economy will grow faster than our population. No person will go hungry.

Less ambitiously, the government — which will be both a “capable, ethical developmental state”, as well as an “entrepreneurial state” — will cut data costs and build digital hubs where inspirational youngsters” will innovate for a livelihood. For their old-fashioned parents, the government will build physical marketplaces where they can hawk fresh produce. 

SONA came with a multi-faceted list of “ten priorities” and another of “five goals”. The National Development Programme that was launched with much fanfare in 2012 — and then promptly set aside when the communists, the trade unionists, and the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC alliance rejected it — has been dusted off and again placed on the table. 

To actually realise the NDP’s Vision 2030, Ramaphosa concedes, will take “extraordinary measures”. Fortunately, he reassures us, the government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework for the next five years has “more than 1,100 indicators” by which the ANC can gauge its success at implementing the NDP.

Afterwards, it was a professional purveyor of belief who most convincingly called out Ramaphosa on his many SONA visions and dreams. Lay pastor Mmusi Maimane, whose day job is leading the Democratic Alliance, was scathing about the lack of detail in the president’s dreamland.

Maimane said that while Ramaphosa had been dreaming, South Africans were “living in a nightmare”. SONA was “rhetoric without substance” and didn’t tackle basic problems that made the dream unattainable, such as the president’s inability to “stand up to the unions” who were destroying education, and to “those in his own party” who disagreed fundamentally with him on economic matters.

Such scoffing is, of course, par for the course in partisan politics. Except that such was the relief when, at the end of 2017, Ramaphosa took over from his ousted predecessor Jacob Zuma — who was noticeably absent from SONA — that CR has been given a remarkably easy ride by much of the media, business and even the opposition.

To me, the most interesting aspect of all of the SONA verbiage was a throwaway sound bite. It is, however, a single, simple measure that can usefully serve as a proxy for all of the 1,100 NDP indicators that Ramaphosa is so proud of. 

“The days of boycotting payment are over,” said Ramaphosa. “We must assert the principle that those who use electricity must pay for it.”

Now if that were implemented, it would contradict 25 years of the government’s inability to do anything, no matter how urgently necessary, that might alienate the ANC’s core voting constituency. We’ll hold you to it, Mr President.

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