Should pomp and ceremony of the State of the Nation Address be done away with to reduce debt? Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency(ANA)
Should pomp and ceremony of the State of the Nation Address be done away with to reduce debt? Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency(ANA)

THE BIG DEBATE: Is SONA a waste of money?

By Mayibongwe Maqhina Time of article published Feb 16, 2020

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The State of the Nation Address (SONA), which marks the opening of the national legislature for the year, has come and gone.

In its wake it has sparked debates, some are not new, such as the trajectory the country should be taking on the economic direction to be pursued.

Views expressed tend to show where each of the participants stand and how they view not only the political developments but the man who is steering the country.

It comes as no surprise that opposition parties hold strong views, inadvertently to score points, whether their expectations have been met or use the occasion to provide their alternative to the governing party.

One of the dominant debates was the prerogative of the president to appoint ministers. The calls for President Cyril Ramaphosa to fire Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan fall squarely in this category.

The other centres around former president FW de Klerk over his comments in an interview that apartheid was not a crime against humanity, and whether he deserves a place in a democratic South Africa.

These debates played out in various platforms as they were articulated in broadcast, columns and social media. Another was around the costs associated with the “pomp and ceremony” of SONA, and whether it was necessary.

Similar arguments were advanced during the inauguration of the president last year with the DA at the time being the lead proponent advancing cost-cutting measures.

It was not surprising that former DA leader Mmusi Maimane on Friday morning tweeted on what he thought should happen to SONA after he watched it at home.

“After watching SONA night. I think we can all agree that was a waste of money. The next president must cancel the costly process and do something cheaper,” Maimane said in his tweet.

His tweet was accompanied by an article that was published in one of the online publications, where Maimane argued his case in detail.

Maimane wrote that more than half of the citizens lived below the upper-poverty line, more than half of the young people were unemployed and South Africa was in a crisis.

He went on regarding state-owned entities, corruption and violent crime. “We are living in a period of economic and literal darkness. Yet watching the proceedings you would have sworn that the economy was booming and that there was cause for cheer.

“For the most part, the red carpet ceremony before the joust was about fashion,” Maimane said. “Unlike the Oscars where the nominees have cause to celebrate accomplishment, it can hardly be said that our parliament had cause to celebrate. Let alone spend millions to hear a 5000 word speech.

“The next president must cancel the costly process and rather resort to something more in line with the needs of the state,” Maimane proposed.

His views attracted criticism from the twitterati.

“I do hate though reducing SONA to merely the costs. We should weigh it on content if it addresses burning issues and hold the president accountable, if promises made in previous year have been delivered. SONA remains an important policy statement,” Nomfundo Mcetywa said in response.

The cost related to SONA cannot be overemphasised, but Maimane has overlooked the purpose of SONA.

Busani Ngcaweni, head of policy and research in the presidency, could not have said it better when he briefed the media days before Thursday’s event. “It is an opportunity for the president to account.”

He had said SONA provided the president an opportunity to take stock of what was promised in the past year, provide the sense of the nation and also commit to what the government was to do in the year ahead. It, therefore, can be argued that reducing SONA to a televised speech as Maimane proposed misses its very purpose.

A parliamentary statement explained that SONA is a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament and one of the rare occasions that brings together the three arms of the state under one roof.

“SONA provides the president with an opportunity to speak to the nation on the general state of South Africa, to reflect on a wide range of political, economic and social matters within the domestic and global contexts, to account to the nation on the work of government and to set out government’s programme of action.

“Traditionally, the president makes key government announcements during this important joint sitting of Parliament,” read the statement.

Parliament also went further to explain that it was a ceremonial joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament, called specifically for the president to deliver his SONA and no other business may be considered on this day.

According to Parliament, the president delivers his SONA before Parliament because the national legislature is charged with ensuring the work from his address was implemented.

“Most importantly, SONA is delivered in Parliament because the priorities pronounced in it have budgetary implications demanding robust oversight - one of Parliament’s constitutional responsibilities.”

Acting secretary of Parliament Baby Tyawa told the media a week ago that although R2.5 million was budgeted, only R1.6m was spent last year.

This SONA was the second in the financial year 2019/2010, the first held in June following the 2019 elections.

A total of R7.3m was budgeted for both events - the June SONA, the official opening of the sixth democratic Parliament, cost R2.6m.

“Consistent with the trend over the previous years, indications are that the spending on both events will be far lesser than the budgeted amount,” Parliament said at the time.

While there may be valid points on expenditure incurred, it is worth noting the moves made to cut down on expenditure incurred in SONA.

This year, cost-cutting measures entail reduction in the event marketing and advertising budget. The junior and civil guard were not in attendance and fewer eminent persons from provinces were invited.

It would rather serve the government well to consider the number of officials sent to attend SONA and also consider the use of cheaper accommodation and flights thereof for those staying overnight.

Perhaps it may be worth returning SONA to daytime as was the case with former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela, to ensure there is little or no overnight stay by officials to cut cost further down.

Is now not the time to do so?

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