Opinion / 22 June 2019, 08:30am / William Saunderson-Meyer
Thursday night’s State of the Nation (SONA) address was like a Rorschach test, with President Cyril Ramaphosa in the role of the nation’s avuncular psychiatrist.
What was this SONA before our eyes? Was this water for our parched throats? Or was it just another politically conjured mirage?
Like psychologically troubled patients deoding ambiguous inkblots, we earnestly tried to discern in the president’s vaguely sketched air castles and careful non-specifics our national gestalt. Each would respond according to need - the weary would have seen succour, the frightened would have found reassurance, and the sceptical would have gazed into a chilling void.
In this, his third SONA in just 18 months, CR chose to proclaim “a dream”. We need a “new social compact” and “to cast our sights on the broadest of horizons”.
There’s nothing innately wrong with any that. After all, South Africans, after a decade of disaster and gloom, could do with some optimism and encouragement.
And as politicians worldwide, throughout history, have instinctually known, the “vision thing” is important in changing the national mood.
In 1940, in the depths of Britain’s despair after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill stiffened spines with the promise that if everyone rallied to the cause, the world would “move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”.
In 1963, in the darkest hours of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech enlisted Americans to turn the tide against institutionalised racism.
Unfortunately, CR’s dream skirts such big, existential issues.
Forget about addressing an increasingly divided nation tearing itself apart, what most fires the imagination of the president is a bullet train that will traverse the country. To be precise, from Musina to Cape Town, travelling via Pretoria, Johannesburg and Buffalo City.
Oh, and please, Father Christmas, a new “smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
There were other parts to the dream. Few came with any semblance of a plan as to how they would be implemented.
Crime will be halved within a decade. International tourism will double by 2030. Public land will be released for urban housing and rural farming.
Eskom will be rescued. The Reserve Bank will remain independent. Very soon, every child “will be able to read for meaning”. Our economy will grow faster than our population. No person will go hungry.
Less ambitiously, the government - which would be both a “capable, ethical developmental state”, as well as an “entrepreneurial state” - will cut data costs and build digital hubs where inspiring youngsters would innovate. It would also build marketplaces where their old-fashioned parents can sell fresh produce.
SONA came with a multi-faceted list of “10 priorities” and another of “five goals”. The National Development Programme (NDP) that was launched with much fanfare in 2012 has been dusted off and again placed on the table.
To actually realise the NDP’s Vision 2030, Ramaphosa concedes, will take “extraordinary measures”.
Fortunately, he reassures us, the government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework for the next five years has “more than 1100 indicators” by which the ANC will measure its success at implementation of the NDP.
It was a professional purveyor of belief who most convincingly called out Ramaphosa on his many visions and dreams.
Lay pastor Mmusi Maimane, whose day job is leading the DA, was scathing.
While Ramaphosa had been dreaming, South Africans were “living in a nightmare”. SONA was “rhetoric without substance” and didn’t tackle basic problems that made the dream unattainable, such as recalcitrant unions and a divided party.
To me, the most interesting aspect of all of SONA’s verbiage was a throwaway sound bite. But it is a single, simple measure that can usefully serve as a proxy for all of the 1100 NDP indicators that Ramaphosa spoke so proudly of.
“The days of boycotting payment are over,” said Ramaphosa. “We must assert the principle that those who use electricity must pay for it.”
If implemented, that would contradict 25 years of the government’s inability to do anything, no matter how necessary, that might alienate the ANC’s core voting constituency.