Ramaphosa spins a tale

William Saunderson-Meyer on the problem with the President's SONA


With its customary cack-handed timing, Eskom on Thursday — after days and nights of burdensome load shedding — suspended the pain. Whoop dee doo!

It’s the second year in a row that Eskom has avoided blackouts on this particular date in the calendar. The reason, News24 reports, is that the government paid Eskom R7m-R10m an hour to avoid cuts on this “special day”.

This meant that for the second year in a row the entire nation lacked a plausible excuse to avoid the torture of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s annual version of Scheherazade’s flights of fantasy, otherwise known as the State of the Nation Address. The Arabian storytelling fabulist’s tales lasted a mesmerising 1,001 nights. Our president’s fiction only felt that long.

When one runs SONA through the text-analysis program Grammarly, aside from the usual carping about the writer having failed to follow American conventions on language use, the verdict was positive. SONA scored better than 87% of all texts run through Grammarly. 

The program computes that SONA would take 30 minutes and 12 seconds to read and 58 minutes and 5 seconds to speak. As it happened, it took Ramaphosa 81 minutes, what with achieving the appropriate gravitas, and all. 

In readability, SONA compared with The New York Times and was likely to be understood by a reader “who has at least a 10th-grade education (age 16). SONA's content was deemed “very engaging” and the tone was “just right”, although the speech did lack “a bit” in clarity. 

Grammarly doesn’t have a BSD filter but I do. My bullshit detector gave readings in the same red-light range as all the other Ramaphosa SONAs I’ve endured.

By the time you read this, the media will have dissected every nuance of SONA 2021, decried every broken promise from SONA 2020, and derided every outrageous prediction of what’s supposed to happen. Suffice it to say, if you expected fuck-all from the president’s address, you wouldn't have been disappointed, although there was the usual intellectual frippery that’s hauled out to titivate these showcase occasions.

Take Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, who has laboured through successive years of Budget Speeches, straining to the breaking point the analogies between our dire circumstances and the hardy Aloe Ferox plant. Last year, we were told that the Aloe Ferox “can withstand the long dry season because it is unsentimental. It sheds dead weight in order to direct increasingly scarce resources to what is young and vital.”

At the time, the consensus interpretation of Mboweni’s allusions was that they signalled his intention to take on the public service unions and trim the bloated government staff establishment. From his failure to do this and his most recent Twitter observations that most whites are racist and “these people” lack appreciation of the reconciliatory efforts of black South Africans, it seems Mboweni might now have an easier target in his sights.

In a similar literary vein, for the second time, the president’s SONA speechwriters have worked to the bone his favourite botanical metaphor of our national flower, the hardy Protea. The Protea, Ramaphosa points out this year, not only survives fire but demands it — a regular Phoenix-like death and resurrection every decade or so is essential for the species to thrive.

The comparison makes perfect sense, of course. The reason why the government is deliberately screwing up the economy is so that a vibrant, command-council version can emerge from the ashes. Pass the matches, comrade.

Ramaphosa has become omnipresent on our televisions, regularly ladling out wholesome dollops of reassurance and inspiration. This is his fifth SONA in three years — the first was in 2018 and because of the 2019 general election there were two that year — and since the pandemic he has appeared on TV about once a month.

In some parts of SONA, the gap between the theory and the reality is so wide that one despairs. “Through the Bizportal platform, one can now register a company in one day, register for the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the South African Revenue Service and even open a bank account,” Ramaphosa boasted.

From personal and anecdotal evidence, I can assure the president that this efficiency exists only in his imagination. 

My staff have been “registered” online three times with UIF over the past three years and still don’t reflect in the fund’s database. My business has been unable to take on a new client for four months because our accountant can’t get the SARS clearance certificate demanded by the clients terms of business, because that cannot be issued until a minor VAT query is finalised. 

And get a bank account operating in a day? In your dreams. Our banks have declined to dismal levels of needless bureaucracy, inefficiency, incompetence and sloth, unless you are a state-capture looter or a Covid-relief skimming cowboy. In that case, it is possible to move vast amounts of stolen money in and out of shell-business accounts with not a single banking eyebrow raised.

It’s all very well for Ramaphosa to assure the nation that Eskom will be fixed, government spending will be cut, corruption will be curbed, violent crime controlled, and broadband rolled out. However, all these promises have been made before by him. 

He’s even recycling, yet again, the promise that cabinet ministers will have to meet agreed to performance measures, a gimmick that dates back to at least 2010. In any case, no president worthy of the title needs a performance contract to sack a useless minister.

The trouble with SONA is not its lofty aspirations. But while nations need to have goals, these have to be credible.

It’s difficult to take seriously Ramaphosa’s promises, given that every reformist move he has made has been thwarted by his own cabinet appointees and his own national executive colleagues. The reformist moves, that is, which hadn’t already been “social compacted” to mulch by his alliance partners.

There's no need for Grammarly’s algorithms or the tens of thousands of words that the commentariat will devote to dissecting the president’s speech, to assess SONA’s credibility. Simply view it through a single filter, that of the recent actions of two of the highest ranking members of the African National Congress to the Zondo Commission into State Capture.

Responding to former president Jacob Zuma’s refusal to obey a Constitutional Court order to appear before the Commission, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule was quick to signal where the party stood. “Why should we suspend a person who believes in what he believes in? Why should we call him into order when he’s done nothing wrong?”

And then, this week, Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte expanded in an opinion piece for Daily Maverick upon the party’s understanding of democratic constitutionalism. It was most worrying, she wrote, that “democratic centralism is now the subject of a commission led by a judge who … practises his craft based on the narrow parameters of existing laws. One can only hope that the Zondo Commission is not going to turn our democracy into more of a neoliberal concoction than it already is…”

There are deep cleavages in the ANC and Cyril’s “social compacting” has not bridged them. Until the party’s internal power struggle is resolved, it's a governance impasse and impossible for many of SONA promises to be anything but hot air.

In the meanwhile, given Eskom's multimillion bill to keep the telly going on South Africa's “special day” SONAs, the president better learn to talk faster. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye