SONA’s cracker full of trinkets

William Saunderson-Meyer deflates the hype around President Ramaposa's address


Like children awaiting Father Christmas, South Africans each year build enormous expectations of what will be in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA). 

Have we been deserving girls and boys? Will it be a shiny Bullet Train or the Smart City Lego? Maybe a Monopoly set?

As in childhood, the bigger the expectations, the greater the letdown. Damn, the train set is missing all the rails. The Smart City’s malls have been looted and razed to the ground. The Monopoly is the South African version and contains only Get Out Of Jail Free cards, bankrupt utility companies, and a threadbare fiscus. 

Given that we’ve had six SONAs in the four years since Ramaphosa moved into Genadendal, the presidential residence, one would think we’d by now have the measure of our patriarch. 

Even naïve kiddies soon enough catch on to the fact that the fat man with the big promises and Ho! Ho! Ho! bonhomie is a charlatan — the family’s favourite uncle and the teller of tall tales, badly disguised in an ill-fitting red outfit and a cotton wool beard. But still, the media engages in the apparently compulsory annual rituals of hype. 

The nation’s political and economic sages are consulted as to their “wish lists” of what Uncle Cyril must deliver. Cynical voices on social media insist that they will definitely not, this time, allow themselves to be taken in by the charade. But, still, secretly they hope. 

And the expert prognosticators, despite past experience, continue to imagine that the president gives a toss what they put in their lists. After all, it’s not just cute public relations that the president is traditionally filmed being “helped” by a posse of school children to put the finishing touches to SONA. The childish game is an accurate reflection of SONA’s nutritional content — low in intellectual fibre, easy to masticate, and containing every known sweetener.

The fact that last night’s SONA was again a disappointing affair is not to say that it was entirely devoid of value. It avoided many of the cliched phrases that have become a drinking game on Twitter — participants have to take a shot of neat tipple at every mention of a Ramaphosa cliché, like “social compact”, or “consensus”, or ‘stakeholder”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It had enough nuggets of common sense that the leader of the opposition, John Steenhuisen, rather cheekily tried to grab credit for the Democratic Alliance. “The bulk of SONA,” enthused Steenhuisen, “could easily have been a DA speech. “[The president] should be commended for at least saying some of the right things.” 

Unfortunately, there were not enough of these “right things” to justify Steenhuisen's excitement. The only epiphany that materialised was Ramaphosa saying that businesses, not governments, create jobs. Although an uncontroversial statement almost anywhere else in the world, it’s a big deal coming from a president who relies on the unions and a bloated public service to keep him in office.

Having made that concession, to appease the left, the president opened the door a further crack to a universal Basic Income Grant (BIG). The Covid-19 social distress grant at a cost of R50bn, funded from last year’s commodities windfall, will be extended for another year. But “during this time” the government will identify “best options” — think, BIG, estimated to cost anything between R100bn–R500bn annually — as a permanent replacement, with the caveat that the new grant will have to pass an affordability test.

For the rest, it’s rote Ramaphosa, just adorned with a new set of curlicues and frills: The government will cut red tape; there will be more competition in electricity generation;  broadband spectrum will be released; public-private partnerships will recapitalise and run the ports and some rail links; state-owned enterprises will be better governed, and there will be significant infrastructural development.

Some of the SONA promises, like Christmas cracker trinkets, are just tawdry rubbish.

First the bang. A labour-intensive programme will “construct or upgrade” rural roads. 

Then comes the trinket. The distance involved is 685 kilometres, over three years, over nine provinces. 

That’s barely 25km of road per year per province. There are 460,000km of gravel roads in the country. Three years ago, University of Cape Town experts assessed 78% of that network to be in a “poor or very poor” condition.

Similarly, Ramaphosa’s trumpeting of the new Critical Skills List, hastily released by Home Affairs this week in order to meet a promise made in the last SONA. The list identifies 101 key occupations that qualify a person for a work visa or permanent residence.

It is the culmination of an eight-year process of “detailed and technical work and extensive consultations with business and labour”. “[It] reflects the skills that are in shortage today to ensure that our immigration policy matches the demands of our economy,” boasted the president.

In reality, the omissions from the list are disastrous and will contribute to the continued deterioration of the South African economy. Most importantly, it does not list a single medical skill as being in short supply, despite the list being birthed by Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, a previous minister of health. Without good healthcare, every sector takes strain.

The draft released last year did list general practitioners as a critical skills category. As GPs should be, in a country that despite being middle-income, has fewer than 0.8 doctors per 1,000 people, which is a quarter of the global average. (According to the OECD, in 2019 SA came last out of 30 countries it ranked by doctors per 1,000 people, behind India in 29th place.)

The finalised list has dropped GPs. The closest it comes to addressing the growing shortage of doctors, nurses and allied health professions — emigrating in their droves in response to deteriorating working conditions, the threat of a National Health Insurance Bill that wants to scrap private healthcare, and strong global demand for health workers — is for nurse educators. 

The Critical Skills List, as with so many of the African National Congress government’s plans, is a good concept stymied by discredited ideological positions that the president is too tired or too afraid to challenge. The government would rather import Cuban doctors at a vast cost than allow in hundreds of doctors from Europe and Asia who are keen to work here.

Similarly, the appointment of businessman Sipho Nkosi to the president’s office to help identify what red tape to cut.  The biggest impediments to SMME growth are not secrets. 

They are the laws compelling race-based hiring and promotion, incompetent and lazy public servants — eight years and counting to get a rezoning application processed —  and the corruption that permeates both formal tenders and the allotment of private business contracts. Nkosi hasn’t a hope of markedly improving this noxious situation. 

Speaking, as Ramaphosa was, just weeks after the National Assembly was gutted in an arson attack and almost a year after the violent insurrection in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, the tired-looking president did manage some fighting words: “We are engaged in a battle for the soul of the nation and will not be defeated,” he declaimed.

There will be prosecutions of the state looters identified in the Zondo reports, he said. There will be changes “in a number of security agencies”, following the task team report that criticised the failure of ministers, bureaucrats, the SA Police Service and the intelligence agencies, to respond properly to the 2021 unrest. 

After praising the president, Steenhuisen qualified his support with the caveat, “words mean nothing until you put them into action … we caution South Africans to hold the applause until these announcements become actions”. Sam Mkokeli, former Business Day political editor, delivered in his column an even harsher judgement.

“South Africa has never had a leader so short on confidence but so long on pretty words,”  writes Mkokeli. A significant part of the problem that South Africa faces is Ramaphosa’s “insipid leadership … his lack of chutzpah”.

What needs to be done hasn’t needed commissions of inquiry or task team reports. The president must jettison the deadwood in his Cabinet, expel from the ANC all those named in the reports, and light a fire under the prosecuting authority. 

In other words, stop the bullshitting and do something. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye