OPINION

You had your moment, Mr President, and you blew it – John Steenhuisen

DA PL says President failed to make required reforms to free up economy, win back investors and create jobs

You had your moment, Mr President, and you blew it

18 February 2020

Madam Speaker

Honourable President

Honourable Members

We stand here today, in this august House, with the weight of expectation on our shoulders.

Our country is at a turning point. All of us here can feel it.

But there can be no excuse for what transpired here in Parliament on Thursday night.

I think most of us here were deeply embarrassed by what happened before the President’s speech.

Honourable members

We don’t have to agree with each other. We don’t have to like each other. We don’t even have to be that nice to each other.

But we do have to respect the rules of this House.

Collectively, we represent 58 million South Africans.

People who dream of a better life and a better country.

People who need us to work together to find real solutions to their problems. Not grandstand for the television cameras.

They demand better from us.

As Rodney King famously said after the race riots in Los Angeles: “We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

We are going to have to find a way of working things out. We simply cannot have a repeat of Thursday ever again.

I understand the frustrations. We come from a difficult history, we feel the disappointment of the present and we face an uncertain future.

We are all disappointed with the state of our nation.

Honourable Members

Do you remember the mood of the nation two years ago?

It’s hard to imagine now, but we had hope. We had just closed the book on a terrible chapter in our history, and we stood at the start of what we thought was a brand new journey.

Yes, our challenges were greater than ever before, but there was a sense of “we can do it”. To resurrect an old slogan: we were alive with possibilities.

Honourable President, I was one of those who had hope. I saw in you a man who could just maybe lead us out of the turbulent times and point us in the direction of prosperity.

And I was not alone. You had a nation behind you, willing you to succeed. You had more support and trust than any leader here since Nelson Mandela.

Your position within your own party was as strong as it could ever be. They needed you to prevent a disaster in the 2019 elections. You were untouchable.

You held all the cards, Honourable President. And then you went and blew it. You let us down.

You failed to make the required reforms to free up our economy, win back investors and create jobs. And so, instead of turning the corner and getting better, things have got worse.

Today it’s hard to remember how we all felt back then, because the litany of bad news in recent times has been relentless.

Over the past two years, every significant number has moved in the wrong direction.

Economic growth has ground to a halt, direct foreign investment is down, tax revenues are down, crime is up and jobs are being lost in their hundreds of thousands.

We have seen mines, retailers and factories close their doors or leave our shores, cutting thousands of precious jobs.

We have seen municipality after municipality fail, leaving desperate communities without water, toilets or usable roads.

We have seen the return of load-shedding, and the need to add even more stages to accurately reflect the fatal condition of the state-run Eskom.

Since you delivered your first SONA speech in this House two years ago, well over a million more people have joined the ranks of the unemployed. This number now stands at almost 10.4 million working-age South Africans.

I am not going to stand here and say that this happened on your watch, Mr President.

That would be far too kind.

It didn’t just happen on your watch, it happened by your own hand. You, sir, put us in this situation.

You had your chance to fix it, and you blew it.

You are not the reformer South Africa thought you were.

You don’t have the guts to make the tough choices our country needs.

You are not brave enough to take on the unions that hold this country to ransom.

And you don’t have the courage to deal decisively with the corrupt people in your own party.

While you were telling us on Thursday night how you’ve fought back against corruption, you had people like Zandile Gumede with you in the House.

While you were telling us how you’ve acted decisively against state capture, the beneficiaries of state capture – some of them chairs of portfolio committees – sat in these very benches.

And while the country waits with baited breath for the long-promised arrests to be made, we have to learn in a document sent from Parliament to the Committee on Public Service that there will be no arrests, prosecutions or orange overalls this year.

That’s why, instead of a New Dawn, there’s a new despair.

Through your actions and your decisions these past two years you might have strengthened your internal position – and you may have strengthened the tripartite alliance – but you have hurt the people of South Africa.

And that will be your legacy: the man who dared us to dream, but led us into a nightmare.

I’m not saying your choices were easy. But doing the right thing under difficult circumstances is what separates great leaders from ordinary leaders.

Every great leader in history has, at some point, had to pick a course of action that was counter-intuitive or risky. Choices that would inevitably put them at odds with the people around them.

Most famously, perhaps, was Nelson Mandela’s decision three decades ago to enter into peaceful negotiations for our new democracy and our Constitution.

He was undoubtedly under enormous pressure from some in the liberation movement to choose a different path – to seek retribution.

But because he chose peace and reconciliation, we have a democracy today that belongs to all who live here.

History is full of such examples.

Think of Abraham Lincoln and the choice he faced before the start of the Civil War. Should he allow the Southern States full autonomy – thereby allowing them to continue the abhorrent practice of slavery – or should he take action?

Many lives were lost in the war that followed, and this would forever rest on his shoulders. But history will remember him as the man who ended slavery and united his country.

Great leaders recognise their defining moments. And they have the courage to do what they know in their hearts is right, even if this is met with resistance by those around them.

Your moment, Honourable President, came on Thursday evening, and you blew it.

It was a simple choice: country or party.

And, unfortunately for the people of South Africa, you chose your party.

You chose to maintain the status quo because you don’t want to be the man on whose watch the ANC split down the middle.

You chose to placate the enemies of growth instead of confronting them.

Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

Your choices, Honourable President, as expressed in your SONA speech, reflected only your fears. This was your defining moment, and you let it slip away.

On Thursday evening you needed to face the truth.

You needed to acknowledge that Eskom, in its current guise, is dead.

You needed to tell the country – and your allies in the tripartite alliance – that throwing billions and billions of Rands at Eskom is economic suicide.

You needed to make it clear that dipping into the pension savings of hard-working government employees to artificially keep Eskom afloat is irresponsible and immoral.

Euthenasia is never easy, but sometimes it’s the most humane option. On Thursday night you should have switched off Eskom’s life support machine, and perhaps supported the DA’s electricity plan which takes power from the state and gives it to the people.

You also needed to pull the plug on the National Health Insurance, because – and in your heart of hearts you know this – the NHI is a fantasy that your government simply cannot make work.

There is no way we can even begin to raise the additional R280 billion required for the NHI without triggering a flight of both tax revenue and skills that we will never be able to reverse.

We can, and must, fix public healthcare within the current budget. And it should be done through proper appointments, through real investment in infrastructure and maintenance, and by filling all doctors’ and nursing posts with qualified individuals.

This is exactly what is set out in the DA’s Sizani Healthcare Plan. And if you haven’t yet read it, I have brought a copy along for you. I’m sure you will discover there is much on which we can collaborate.

Your third big announcement Mr President should have been that you are walking away from the Expropriation of Property Without Compensation, and that you won’t interfere with Section 25 of the Constitution.

The sacred protection of property rights is the very bedrock of our economy, and without it everything will collapse.

You need to stop fooling the public – and yourselves – into thinking that Expropriation Without Compensation is essential for just land reform.

It is entirely possible to work within the existing legislation to truly empower black South Africans with land ownership.

But the truth is, Expropriation Without Compensation has never been about real land justice, has it?

Do you know who David Rakgase is, Mr President? He’s a black farmer in Limpopo who has been fighting for two decades to own the land he farms on.

And do you know who he’s been fighting with? Your government.

He’s 70 years old now. He started this fight before he was 50.

With the help of the DA he took his case all the way to the North Gauteng High Court, where your government was instructed to sell him his land. Not give it to him – sell it to him.

And despite this court order, your government still refused to comply.

That’s how much you care about returning the land to the people. That’s how much you care about empowering black farmers.

Expropriation Without Compensation was never about giving title to the land to those who want to farm the land. It was always only a way for the ANC government to control the land and thereby control the patronage that comes with it.

Expropriation Without Compensation is nothing but a ruse – a populist rally cry around an issue that you know will evoke an emotive response.

It was weaponised by the EFF, and you found yourselves unable to resist following them down that rabbit hole.

And I assure you, Mr President – just as every economist, every ratings agency and every would-be investor has assured you – that the fastest way to collapse this economy is by removing the foundation of property rights.

Those three things – Eskom, the NHI and Expropriation Without Compensation – should have been front and centre in your SONA speech if you wanted to stem the bleeding and restore confidence.

And if you really wanted to be bold in your reforms, you could have added the following:

You could have announced an end to the enrichment scam that is BEE, replacing it with a real broad-based redress programme that helps poor South Africans.

Yes, I know this would not be an easy sell. After all, you are one of the biggest beneficiaries of this get-rich-quick scheme. You have become very wealthy while millions have stayed very poor.

But, even you must acknowledge that we simply cannot afford this extra layer of politically-connected price gouging.

Then, you could have announced that some of the powers of SAPS will be devolved to provinces and metros, in line with international best practice. Because it makes sense for those closest to communities to be tasked with their protection.

You could have officially abandoned cadre deployment as a policy of your party. This ANC policy lies at the heart of what is wrong with our government; cadre deployment is the mid-wife of state capture.

And don’t just take it from me. It was no less than ANC veteran and former DG of Home Affairs, MavusoMsimang, who said of cadre deployment a few weeks ago:

“The system is so open to abuse it should be ditched now… state capture wouldn’t have happened if there had been an independent, professional civil service.”

The fact is, Mr President, your comments last month on building a capable state mean nothing as long as the politically-connected feeding trough is still open for business.

Not even a week after you announced your commitment to ending dodgy appointments, we had the Health Minister appointing his compromised niece and the head of the Public Service Commission appointing his mistress!

Meanwhile, we had the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation appointing none other than the discredited Menzi Simelane and the disgraced Mo Shaik as her special advisors.

And you let it all happen. Party first, country second.

South Africans are tired of hollow words and empty promises, Mr President.

I have seen, first-hand, the devastation caused by failed governments in places like Butterworth, Siyanqoba and QwaQwa. The capable state will remain a distant dream as long as you try to build it with an incapable government.

And finally, you could have announced an immediate review of all labour legislation, and particularly where this legislation inhibits small, medium and micro enterprises from hiring people.

The owners of these businesses are potentially your biggest allies in fighting unemployment. You need to help them create jobs. Instead you’d rather kowtow to the trade union bosses who dangle you on a piece of string.

These announcements, Mr President, would have been the speech of a real reformer. It would have been a SONA for the people of this country.

But you could not do any of this, because the interests of your party and its allies outweigh the needs of 58 million South Africans.

Yes, your speech had a few good moments, and particularly on the issue of expanding energy capacity.

Adding grid capacity from renewable energy, natural gas, and hydro is a good idea.

Allowing commercial and industrial users to produce their own electricity, and expediting their applications is a good idea.

Opening bid window 5 of the renewable energy IPP is a good idea.

And letting municipalities procure their power directly from producers is a very good idea.

But here’s the thing: You can’t claim these as your ideas. The DA has been offering you these solutions for years, and you’ve now left it way too late.

In fact, on the issue of municipalities buying electricity directly, you have been locked in a legal battle with the DA on this. The court date was coming up in May, and you knew you would lose, which is the only reason you capitulated.

So yes, we welcome these initiatives, because they happen to be ours.

As for the rest of the speech, it was all just fables and fairy tales.

Last year you told us the one about the bullet train. Whatever happened to that, by the way?

This year you announced a sovereign wealth fund, which is a great idea if you have a healthy budget like Norway or Saudi Arabia.

But we are running a budget deficit, andspiraling deeper and deeper into debt. Where will the money for a sovereign wealth fund come from Mr President? From your own bank account?

Talking of banks. On Thursday night you announced the creation of a State Bank. The trouble is that we already have two state banks – the Land Bank and the Post Bank. And both of them are bankrupt and riddled with corruption!

You talk of building a smart city in Lanseria when you can’t even keep the lights on in our existing cities.

The gap between what you dream of in SONA and what you can deliver grows wider and wider every year.

South Africans don’t want fantasies. They want to know how we are going to get through this crisis we’re in.

Thursday evening was your moment, Honourable President, and you blew it. You wasted your last good chance to lead us to the New Dawn you once promised.

Now, you finished your speech with a quote from the late, great Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder, Joseph Shabalala.

So let me add to this tribute with another Ladysmith Black Mambazo lyric:

“When the sun goes down, the birds on the trees

Are singing sweet for the night

When the sun says good night to the mountain

I am dreaming of the sun”

Mr President, we are all dreaming of the sun, of that brave new dawn.

I believe that we can find our way out of the long dark night.

The question is: are you the man to take us there?

After Thursday night, I think South Africa knows the answer.

Two days from now, in this debate, you’ll have one last chance to redeem yourself.

Use the opportunity to make the tough choices.

Choose jobs over policies that kill investment.

Choose reconciliation over racial populism.

And choose your country over your party.

Don’t blow it this time. South Africa is counting on you

Issued by John Steenhuisen, Leader of the Democratic Alliance, 18 February 2020