Silver-tongued Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA song of seduction
That’s not surprising, since it comes against a sombre backdrop of unaddressed economic collapse and increased social chaos.
But in reality, SONA is of exaggerated importance. It is not a tradition with deep political traction in South Africa. SONA always has been more focused on preening about imaginary actions than taking responsibility for actual ones.
In the Jacob Zuma years it was a kind of sadomasochistic live-porn show laced with moments of pratfall comedy. A nation that was in the process of being royally screwed by its president and his unsavoury gang had - on this one night a year - its revenge, when Julius Malema and his costumed clowns bated and mocked him mercilessly.
During the Thabo Mbeki years, it was dull and dutiful, one of those rare occasions where the philosopher-king would deign to show his face in Parliament. There he would annually expound with enchanting eloquence on the wonders of the coming African Renaissance, while his listeners were evenly divided between those snorting with derision and those snoring with boredom.
SONA is about show, not substance. ANC presidents are more prisoners than protagonists. CR is shackled to ANC policy, as he knows only too well.
Given this - and the fact this is Ramaphosa’s fourth SONA, since there were two in the 2019 election-year - it is a triumph of faith over fact that so many still have such high hopes of CR. This year, as every time before, the president spoke of the need for social compacts, social partnerships, and broad-based coalitions. This year, as every time before, the president mentioned the need for radical economic transformation.
That’s all well and good. Radical economic transformation - stripped of its Zuma-code meaning of an elitist kleptocracy camouflaged as a benefactor of the masses - is necessary to share more fairly the national wealth.
And that can only be achieved peaceably in a society as divided and multi-faceted as South Africa through social compacts that bring together disparate groups willing to make genuine trade-offs.
But that is not what Ramaphosa intends. When Ramaphosa talks about partnerships and coalitions, he is addressing his recalcitrant, ideologically hidebound allies in the tripartite alliance, the unionists and communists who put him in power and on whom he is dependent to remain there.
These are the ones he is nudging towards accepting the “stark reality” of economic stagnation, growing unemployment and failing state-owned entitities. This is the constituency he is pleading with to accept the “stabilisation and repurposing” of institutions.
It is a telling indication of Ramaphosa’s continued weakness within the ANC that even at the eleventh hour, his approach remains one of high-wire caution at best, timidity at worst. There were no big moves in SONA 2020.
Admittedly, there was some faint hope. Unfettering power production outside Eskom and using alternative energy sources are welcome moves, albeit they have been solutions obvious for decades to everyone outside of government.
For the rest, it’s SONA’s usual thin gruel of roadmaps, strategies and commissions; of “far-reaching” master plans and “fundamental” overhauls.
Most conspicuously lacking is a sense of urgency, although everyone knows that what is needed are not new policies, but bold actions.
For better or worse, we have put our fate in the hands of CR, one of the few good guys in the ANC gang. And despite years of presidential inertia, most of us continue fervidly to believe in him - a poll this week found that Ramaphosa has among the highest presidential approval ratings in the world, an enviable 62%.
It’s either an act of extraordinary faith or ineffable stupidity.
Perhaps it is Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological defence mechanism where counter-intuitively, those taken hostage or in an abusive situation bond with their tormentor/s.
The only thing that’s still not clear is CR’s role. Is he, as his fans aver, the hostage, the captive of malevolent groups in his own party? Or is he the canny hostage-taker of an entire nation, the silver-tongued baddie with whom South Africa has trustingly fallen in love?
* Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.