By Vusi Gumbi
On February 10, 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his sixth State of the Nation Address (Sona).
It is unarguable that Cyril Ramaphosa’s maiden address, today popularly known as the “Thuma Mina” speech, was well received. It brought South Africans together around the clarion call to be united behind the man who was long considered to be destined for the Union Buildings.
The address is, by its very nature and its name, reflective: it examines where we are as a country, what we have achieved and puts forward some solutions and a plan of action on the problems we face. Sona 2022 was pretty much the same story from a different venue.
Having previously been criticised for dreamy speeches with no tangible targets, the president did provide certain time frames on proposed solutions but failed to report on the progress on the promises made in his previous Sonas. The speech lacked accountability and political will to drive the necessary change, and demonstrated elements of privatisation – in short, it was dull, to say the least.
Like the previous five addresses, he made promises to fight pervasive poverty, high unemployment and structural inequality, instead of accounting for what his administration had done and any achievements they had made in this regard. At the 2020 Sona, Ramaphosa presented “six strategies” to tackle Eskom’s woes, among which was the integration of independent power producers (IPP).
He said, “this is a historic and unprecedented development since it demonstrates the commitment of all social partners to take the necessary actions and make the necessary sacrifices to secure our energy needs”. Two years later, the president cites the unsustainable electricity supply as one of the underlying reasons for South Africa’s stagnation.
The notable omission in this regard was the status of the six strategies he had presented two years earlier on this very issue. In a similar vein, the president touched on South Africa’s second pandemic, gender-based violence (GBV), and introduced a new strategy to curb this cancer in our society, without giving any account of the progress made on the GBV Emergency Action Plan he had introduced in September 2019. Does the president think South Africans have a short memory, which affords him free rein to recycle his speeches and ideas?
The president used the bread-and-butter issue of street vendors to highlight the extent to which red tape, which had curtailed the movement of small businesses and the informal sector, had been eliminated, yet the government had said that it was a crime for street vendors to operate during the heavy lockdowns, even though they were offering similar services to the oligopolies that were allowed to continue to operate during the said period. In what I call political expediency, the president referred to the incident of the poor woman who was at the receiving end of inhumane treatment from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) – where her products were confiscated because she did not have a permit – in a video that went viral.
This incident was no different from the many that took place across South Africa: if you have walked around the Johannesburg CBD, you might have witnessed, with a heavy heart, how street vendors tremble at the sight of the JMPD vans. The video of that woman is the lived experience of many black people trying to make a living in South Africa, so for Ramaphosa to mention this as being an isolated incident, exposed how out of touch he is with reality.
The elephant in the room was the issue of unemployment among young people, most of whom are black. The president spoke extensively on this, as he had before. He, like all other government stakeholders who speak on this issue, spoke of young people with a National Senior Certificate (previously known as matric) or tertiary qualifications.
I watched with a heavy heart as he omitted the “forgotten youth” – those who leave school prior to passing matric. What makes this a contentious issue is that at some point, statistics revealed that 4 in 10 learners leave school before obtaining matric.
My question is: what about the downtrodden, the hopeless, who, in times like these, don't feel they have a place in South Africa? Yes, measures must be taken to address the social ills that lead to dropping out of school; however, what is to happen to those who have already fallen victim to a repugnant social environment?
Contrary to the popular narrative around the social relief grant of R350 per month, it is not sustainable. The president’s announcement that this stimulus package was to be extended for a year is all well and good, but this should have been coupled with tangible plans for job creation to avert a state of dependency.
An interesting takeaway from the president’s address was that he acknowledged that the report into the July unrest had found poverty, unemployment and inequality to be the root causes of the looting and destruction of property that ensued last year, backtracking on his initial unfounded claim that the unrest was an insurgency.
Interestingly, the president correctly pointed to early childhood development (ECDs), nursing, social work and community services as drivers of social development with a proven record of job creation, which have the potential to play a pivotal role in the changing dynamics of the country and its future.
Disappointingly, however, the president ended there, without putting forward any concrete plan of action to uplift these sectors. His assertion that “experience” (or rather the lack of it) is an impediment to young graduates trying to find employment was well received and hopefully, this will be taken seriously and solutions implemented.
All in all, it was a neo-liberal speech that seemed to have been written with the assistance of the blue party. The president does not appreciate Sona for what it is. He failed to provide any account of his government and its shortcomings or successes (if any). South Africans have heard all of these things before, and the president has failed to distinguish himself.
*Vusi Gumbi is a Master’s candidate in Politics at the University of Johannesburg and a research assistant at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.