A broad coalition of civil society organisations has fired a salvo at President Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Thursday, urging for strong leadership that embraces bold, transformative measures to navigate the country towards a future where equality, care, and the wellbeing of all citizens are paramount.
As South Africa prepares to commemorate 30 years of constitutional democracy, an open letter by 15 organisations that include; the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ), Budget Justice Coalition (BJC), Children’s Institute, UCT, Corruption Watch, Equal Education, Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA), Health Justice Initiative (HJI), National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU), #PayTheGrants, Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group (PMBEJD), RightfulShare, SECTION 27, Social Policy Initiative (SPI) and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), have urged Ramaphosa to centre this week’s Sona around the needs of the country's most marginalised communities, advocating for policy and implementation efforts to be realigned to address these critical concerns.
Calling Thursday’s Sona a “watershed moment”, the letter calls on the government to adopt a unified approach in advancing and adequately funding key policy priorities to ensure the promotion of constitutional rights.
Highlighting discrepancies between commitments made in previous Sona events and the actual allocation of resources by the National Treasury, the letter criticises the trend of unilateral budget cuts that threaten socio-economic rights, economic growth, and previous government achievements.
These actions, perceived as part of a broader austerity agenda, have sparked calls for accountability and a re-evaluation of funding strategies to support South Africa's developmental goals.
“In recent years, we have observed that while the Sona has made certain commitments, National Treasury has either failed to resource these programmes or has deliberately cut funding to them without any accountability.
“In 2023, National Treasury unilaterally issued instructions to all departments and state entities to make widespread and devastating budget cuts, later repudiated by cabinet. National Treasury continues to pursue hyper-austerity in critical economic and social services. This curtails the realisation of socio-economic rights, hampers economic growth, and undermines the gains made through recent government interventions. We call on you to hold the Minister of Finance and National Treasury to account and ensure that policy priorities will be allocated adequate funds and that the macroeconomic policy stance is supportive of your developmental agenda,” the open letter reads.
The President's initiatives, such as the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant and the Presidential Employment Stimulus, have been acknowledged for their positive impact on combating unemployment and poverty.
However, concerns about the sustainability of these programmes amid financial constraints are growing. The letter stresses the importance of continued investment in public employment programmes and social grants, which are vital for the country's socio-economic stability.
Noting a study by 42 countries published in 2023 by researchers at the University of Sao Paolo that found that social protection spending has a high multiplier effect on GDP growth, and that the effect is much more pronounced in low-income countries and countries with high levels of inequality, the open letter says these benefits are being consistently undermined by National Treasury’s “ideological choice to reduce the grant’s budget allocation from R44 billion in 2022/23, to R36 billion in 2023/24, and now to R33 billion in 2023 Medium Term Budget Policy Statement”.
“This has resulted in less than half of working-aged people living below the food poverty line receiving the grant, whose value has remained stagnant, in the context of rising hunger. Other social grants — lifelines for the poor and those who cannot work — have also not kept pace with the cost of living. For example, the Child Support Grant received a year-on-year increase of just 4.2% in April 2023, at a time when food inflation soared to over 14%. Already, there are signs that child stunting and mortality rates are rising”.
Special attention is drawn to the pressing issue of gender-based violence (GBV), urging the government to address the root causes of this "pandemic" with significant investments and targeted actions.
Among the calls made for the president by the group of 15 include:
- Sona must focus on tackling unemployment, poverty, and inequality with sufficient resources and implementation in the National Budget.
- Enhance the SRD grant to meet the food poverty line, adjust the means test, eliminate exclusions, and set a timeline for a basic income grant by 2025.
- Increase the Child Support Grant to the food poverty line to combat child hunger.
- Promote a vision for public services in health and education that prioritises people's needs and ensures adequate resources.
- Recognise electricity as a public good, necessitating public investment for reliable, affordable access and addressing the electricity crisis through just transition.
- Announce significant investment in upgrading social and economic infrastructure, including rail and ports.
- Present a strategy for job creation and economic growth through diversification into labour-intensive, sustainable sectors, with policy support.
- Affirm the role of public employment programmes and innovative projects in tackling unemployment, without sacrificing any programme for another.
- Direct the National Treasury to increase revenue through wealth taxes for redistribution to fund essential social and economic initiatives.
- Form a team to revise macroeconomic policies to include economic and employment growth as monetary policy objectives.
- Ensure accountability for corruption and resolve governance issues at State Owned Entities to rebuild state capacity.
- Inspire hope for an economy focused on care, addressing gender-based violence, promoting equality, and serving the vulnerable, amid significant socio-economic challenges.
“Mr. President, if you announce a programme in Sona that moves us decisively in this direction, you will have our support for such a national effort,” the letter concluded.