The second coming of SOD

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on our disastrous state and the state of disaster


President Cyril Ramaphosa loves to speak to the nation. 

Astonishingly, for a man who has yet to complete his first term in office, this is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s seventh State of the Nation Address. Add his almost monthly “Address to the Nation” during the pandemic lockdown, dutifully transmitted by the public broadcaster on all channels at stations at prime time.

Also, let’s not omit the ANC’s annual ritual of the 8th January Birthday Statement. This is SONA-lite for the comrades, with the same boasts of past achievements and assertions of glories to come, but — like the now excommunicated Comrade Carl Niehaus — dressed up in pseudo-revolutionary camouflage gear. 

If one considers that all this mouth flapping comes from a man who, during the same period, held only one press conference at which he took questions, and a pattern can be seen. Our president is far better at talking than doing. 

So, if listening to last night’s SONA — delayed for 45 minutes by Economic Freedom Fighters in red onesies behaving like petulant children at story time — it felt as if you’d somehow heard it all before, that’s good. You’ve clearly been paying attention. You have heard it all before. Several times. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Last year, the themes were hardship, the innate resilience of South Africans, the need for social compacts and a determination “to leave no one behind”. 

This year, the themes were “trying times” with many “worried … uncertain … without hope”. But South Africans are resilient and by “working together and acting boldly and decisively” the crises will be overcome “leaving no one behind”.

In SONA 2022, the president punted the success of his Infrastructure fund, which then had commitments of R776 billion towards its R1.2 trillion target. SONA 2022 reported another R367 billion in commitments and upped the target to R2 trillion by 2028.

Unfortunately, “commitments” is just a euphemism for “promises” and have no legal, enforceable weight. If the electrical, road, port and rail infrastructures are not rapidly restored, the “commitments” will evaporate like mist before the scorching sun. 

What is encouraging, however, was that Ramaphosa reported R232 billion of work already under construction and a further R600 billion already allocated. These included “new human settlements”, road upgrades, bridge construction and the “development of small harbours”.

And while it is similarly encouraging that it has, at last, dawned on the ANC that Eskom is the priority problem — Ramaphosa described it as an “existential threat to our economy and social fabric” — the president’s “solutions” may very well make things worse. 

First, is the declaration of yet another National State of Disaster (SOD), which will be overseen by his most outspoken foe, the Minister of Cooperative Governance & Local Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Presumably, NDZ will bite the dust in the Cabinet reshuffle which has been “imminent”, according to ANC leaks, for two months. There are, however, many in the ANC leadership who want Ramaphosa to keep her in the post.

It’s not clear how the SOD will, in practical terms, make any difference to sorting out Eskom, except for making it possible to bypass some of the more onerous tender requirements, which slow procurement. In fact, the most striking outcomes of the last SOD, implemented through the diktats of the very same Dlamini Zuma, were extremely negative: extraordinary levels of corruption and looting, farcical restrictions on individual liberties, and much public frustration and anger.

SOD-2 may not happen. The Democratic Alliance has announced that it will challenge it in court and it will no doubt be joined in this by an entire array of civil society organisations. They may well succeed. 

Although there were similar legal challenges to SOD-1, all of which failed, the circumstances are now significantly different. SOD-1 was the response to an out-of-the-blue Act of God pandemic of international proportions; SOD-2 is the response to standard-fare governmental incompetence perpetrated out of stupidity and indolence over 29 years.

Nor will it assist the government’s case that Dlamini Zuma is already facing legal action over her refusal to release the documents outlining the rationale for her apparently capricious decisions during SOD-1.

Ramaphosa also announced the creation of a Minister of Electricity in the Presidency, “to assume full responsibility for overseeing all aspects of the electricity crisis response”.  That “full responsibility” will, however, be tempered by having to liaise with the Minister of Public Enterprises — currently Pravin Gordhan — who remains the shareholder representative of Eskom and will be carrying out the planned establishment of the separate transmission company and the implementation of the just energy transition programme. 

The new minister will also still have to deal with the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy (currently the obstructive and intractable Gwede Mantashe), which manages all regulations that affect Eskom, as well as the National Treasury, to which it must appeal for budgetary bailouts. 

And, of course, the Minister of Cooperative Governance, who’ll be running SOD-2 and on previous experience will have more de facto power than the president, as well as being free of parliamentary oversight, will be able to interfere at will.

In essence, Ramaphosa’s solution to the bitter rivalry between Gordhan and Mantashe has been to try to avoid conflict by giving the job to a third person. Needless to say, neither will be placated.

This is typical of Ramaphosa’s commitment to a single overriding goal: maintaining ANC unity at any cost. While he can clearly define the problem — in this case the need for “a single point of command and a single line of march” for Eskom, as he put it in SONA — the president lacks the political courage to face down the competing factions in his Cabinet, so he temporises and compromises to what will be a disastrous and paralysing effect. 

“This State of the Nation Address”, Ramaphosa told us last night, “is about seeing hope where there is despair.” But, in reality, hope in this country is flickering like a candle in high winds during load shedding. 

The change in the national mood since last year’s SONA has been remarkable. Last year, despite SONA-2022 being a cut-and-paste version of SONA-2021, the media, although expressing some reservations, was upbeat. 

News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson wrote that Ramaphosa was “a man on a mission” and “unwavering” in signalling that it was the function of business, not the state, to create jobs. “Even [Ramaphosa’s] biggest critics must admit that [it] was the most determined and confident display we have seen from him yet,” Basson enthused. 

Vrye Weekblad editor and columnist Max du Preez, normally outspokenly harsh in his assessments of the government, wrote that SONA was “a tour de force of change, a recognition of shortcomings and vision.” 

More circumspect was the tenor of the business sector’s response, captured well by BusinessLIVE’s editorial at the time. It wrote that while Ramaphosa was correct in describing South Africans as engaged “in a battle for the country’s soul”, it was worth remembering “it was the ANC that dragged us into the war”.  The president would have to be “bolder, fiercer and more direct in battling his adversaries”. 

A year on, and with Ramaphosa immeasurably politically strengthened against his enemies within the party, we have yet to see any sign of more incisive leadership. And while the much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle may yet reveal a more vigorous Ramaphosa, I doubt it. 

In the meanwhile, as a result of Ramaphosa’s dithering impotence, over the past year, the situation has markedly deteriorated further.  As the Financial Mail put in an editorial on Friday: “The stark thread running through Ramaphosa’s SONA … was a low hum of despair and desperation.”

One needs to look no further for a metaphor of these times than the venue where both this year’s and last year’s SONAs were held.

SONA 2022 was hastily moved to the Cape Town City Hall because a vagrant, supposedly peeved over the cost of this annual jamboree, had skipped past security guards and dysfunctional CCTV networks to torch the National Assembly. All it took was some rags and a bottle of petrol to gut the iconic building, erected in 1884, because not only was the security pathetic but the fire suppression system hadn’t had maintenance for years, so wasn’t working.

In the wake of the arson, there was government talk of an accelerated repair and work starting in May 2022, to be completed by end of 2023 at the cost of under R1 billion. The most recent official estimates are that it will take at least four years to repair and that the cost will be at least R2 billion. 

A parliamentarian explains that part of the delay is that there is a frenzied scramble behind the scenes as politicians and officials jostle to get a slice of the procurement action. They will be pleased with Ramaphosa easing the avenues to brazen criminality with SOD-2. 

At last year’s SONA, Ramaphosa spoke evocatively of the destruction of the National Assembly, saying that “for many, what happened in Parliament speaks to a broader devastation in our land.” Sadly, that devastation continues and is worsening every day. 

This is a country practised both at sparking and crushing hope.