It’s not easy for the Buffalo

Andrew Donaldson asks whether our President is finally growing a pair



THE cri de cœur du jour, if I may put it that way, emerged fairly early during the state of the nation address: “You watch this space.” 

Although the phrase turned up only a couple of times, and then only in departures from Cyril Ramaphosa’s prepared speech, the commentariat latched on to it with glee, and soon enough it was all over the #SONA19 Twitterfeed.

Tackling public sector crime and corruption, the president said, will remain a priority, and work is already underway to reboot, among others, the police services, the prosecuting authority and the state security agency. 

Further announcements in this regard are in the offing, Ramaphosa added, and we will shortly be all be up to speed on exactly how the authorities will now fulfil their duties to defend and protect all the people of South Africa (if not their property rights) and not just his rotten government and toxic civil service.

“You watch this space,” he said again.

We shall see. For, in truth, we have been watching this space for a while now — since December 2017, in fact, when he took over from Jacob Zuma — and, unless we’ve missed something, not a great deal has happened there yet. 

To be fair, it’s not easy for Buffalo. The party he leads is one of the worst in the world, and it has thrown up a government that is little more than a gang of thieves. Thanks to the factionalism, looting and ineptitude the economy has been blanched to such an extent that Ramaphosa has been rendered practically ineffective from day one in the top job.

As the political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki told the Times of London ahead of SONA, “He has made no impact on the economy, unemployment is still growing, which is much more significant than any wins he might claim about dealing with corruption. Poverty continues to be a real problem and in real terms economic growth [officially predicted to be 1.3% this year] is zero.”

Elsewhere, little has come of Ramaphosa’s five-year plan to squirrel up $100 billion in foreign investment. Ditto the youth employment scheme he launched in partnership with the private sector last year. It was meant to generate 330 000 new jobs a year, but so far only about 2 000 have been created.

The space we’re watching, then, is not pretty. It’s covered in cobwebs, its air fetid with tired and broken slogans. A hundred thousand ANC promises or more have come here to die, and the space is waist deep in what appears to be faded yellow T-shirts and rotting chicken bones from old happy meals.

But hope springs eternal, especially with this crowd, and it does appear that certain developments are afoot. Could it be that the president is finally growing a pair? Admittedly there is nothing pendulous just yet, no great purple orbs swollen with the promise of that threatened new dawn, but, you know, acorns to mighty oaks, and all that.  

Earlier in the week, the cabinet met to discuss Eskom’s future. It was a big item on the agenda, central to concerns about growth and investor confidence, and it was here that Ramaphosa, despite strong objections, reportedly stuck to his guns in insisting that the power utility be broken up into three separate entities.

The plan, mooted by an Eskom advisory panel, is not an altogether radical one, and is said to be modelled on similar restructuring exercises in the United States and China. It is not even a new plan, as it first turned up in a 1998 energy policy paper which called for Eskom to be chopped up into separate generation, transmission and distribution business units. 

Unfortunately, that plan also made a case for the entity’s privatisation and was thus rejected in toto by government.

But it is nevertheless a plan, and one was desperately needed to be plonked pronto on the table to mollify the ratings agencies ahead of the next multi-billion rand bailout — provided, of course, that it ensures Eskom’s future financial sustainability. Eskom’s debt, which hit the R400-billion mark in November and continues to grow, must be serviced by March 31, failing which a sovereign downgrade is inevitable.

In this regard, there is considerable urgency, which may explain the sudden and startling appearance of the Cyril cajones. There’s nothing quite like teetering on the edge of an abyss to spur one into action, and so, out they came. Kudu-kudunk.

There is some concern that, for the time being, the private sector continues to be excluded from plans affecting Eskom and other SOEs. Cosatu, naturally, is also annoyed that it has not been consulted about any of this, and there have been mutterings that workers will ultimately be the ones who bear the brunt of years of executive corruption and mismanagement.

Their concerns are not unwarranted. As Ramaphosa warned, “Eskom is in crisis and the risks it poses to South Africa are great… We need to take bold decisions and decisive action. The consequences may be painful, but they will be even more devastating if we delay.”

Away from such grim realities as impending job losses, it was reassuring to note that all was still upbeat with the Economic Freedom Front though. Sadly, they did not disrupt proceedings as anticipated, but they did indicate that when it came to a political vision, they're still out there, running with the unicorns and radical fairies.

Given a moment on the red carpet to share his thoughts with a radio audience, Floyd Shivambu, the party’s number two and apparent philosopher, suggested this might be Ramaphosa’s last SONA as the ANC would be soundly beaten at the polls in May. He later went on to accuse Ramaphosa of plagiarising the EFF’s election manifesto.

Lastly, we would be remiss in not drawing attention to the biggest oversight in Ramaphosa’s speech. 

Despite a widespread campaign in the Independent newspapers urging him to do so, the president failed to express much in the way of support for Iqbal Survé, executive chairperson of Sekunjalo and former child physician to no less a person than Nelson Mandela.

“It is important,” he told his newspapers, “that [Ramaphosa] recognises that those custodians of transformation and empowerment [who, like Survé, are in a bit of dwang at the moment] need to be supported. South Africa cannot go back to the days where black people, in particular, are marginalised. 

“And it’s important for the president to ensure that real transformation in the economy occurs, even if it means upsetting some of the very powerful institutions out there today. After all, what is liberation without real transformation?”

Exactly. But where was the tipping of that presidential hat? Nowhere, sadly. There was not a single mention of the great and noble Swervy. Could such a slight have been deliberate? If so, well, that takes some balls.

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