Prof. Sipho Seepe
In delivering this year’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Cyril Ramaphosa knew quite well that South Africans have had to contend with his “six years of broken promises”. They endured prolonged periods of load shedding, a stagnant and job-shedding economy, water shedding, and the collapse of social and economic infrastructure. They’ve also had to contend with escalating forms of violent crime and corruption. Understandably, this year’s Sona was not going to be easy. In his desperation to lift the mood of the audience that was weary of his promises, Ramaphosa invoked moments that birthed South Africa’s democracy.
Those were moments full of promise and hope. Unbeknown to him, this was the most inappropriate choice given the fact he presided over an administration that has reversed all the gains of freedom. The most generous assessment of Sona came from a member of the opposition party who quipped, “Which world does the president live in?” Others were not so kind. “What the President did was just lie.” The most disturbing aspect is that the president may believe his delusions. Fortunately, voters are no longer fooled by sleek presentations. They are progressively walking away from the ANC.
As fate would have it, this year’s Sona took place three days shy of the 34th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Sadly, Mandela’s cherished ideal “of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” has all but faded into oblivion. Whereas Mandela symbolised hope, Ramaphosa symbolises disaster. Mandela was decisive. Ramaphosa has no backbone. Mandela was incorruptible. Hiding thousands of dollars under a mattress is not confidence-building. Mandela did not have to rush to the courts to seal information, personal or not.
At a time when the country is grappling with an energy crisis, Ramaphosa was willing to enter into an agreement with the UK, US, Germany, France and the European Union for a measly $8.5 billion (R160bn) in exchange for South Africa mothballing its coal plants. To transition from coal, South Africa requires $250bn (R4.7 trillion) over the next 30 years to fund the closing of its coal-fired plants and develop green alternatives. The irony was lost to Ramaphosa that his funders were busy stockpiling coal to guarantee their energy security requirements. Ramaphosa is a person willing to mortgage his country for a penny. Desperate for praise from Africa’s erstwhile colonial masters, he has no qualms about gambling with the future of the country.
The 2024 national elections are likely to be the most consequential elections since the founding of South African democracy. Every credible poll indicates that the support for the ANC will plummet below 51%. For the first time, South Africa faces the possibility of being led by a coalition government at a national level. The 2024 national elections represent 1994 for those born in an era of democracy.
It is in such moments that Antonio Gramsci’s famous observation that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” becomes apposite.
The morbid symptoms that characterised the 1994 political transition included a heavy dose of paranoia on the side of the National Party government. Faced with the prospect of losing power, the apartheid regime embarked on a reign of terror. This was part of inducing fear in its historical constituency. Africans were portrayed as savages who would embark on an orgy of violent revenge.
Thirty years on, South Africa faces a post-1994 Gramscian moment where the old is dying, but the new cannot be born. For the first time, the ANC enters the election with a great sense of trepidation. The morbid signs associated with the interregnum are there for all to see. Ramaphosa has failed on every front. Ironically, the most scathing report on Ramaphosa has come from quarters that were his drum majorettes. The Daily Maverick cut through the chase. It juxtaposed Ramaphosa’s performance against his promises.
The promise of combating deepening poverty has not been realised. According to the Daily Maverick, “An estimated 13.8 million South Africans live below the food poverty line.” This reality is despite the provision of The Social Relief of Distress Grant. The same is true of the promise of “strengthening of the SAPS to prevent crime and increased capacity at the National Prosecuting Authority”. The result is that in the third quarter of 2023, South Africa’s per capita murder rate for 2022/23 was the highest in 20 years.”
Instead of ending load shedding, last year the country was subjected to 332 days of darkness. Load shedding has been disastrous for the economy. Minister of Electricity Dr. Kgosientshio Ramokgopa said, “At the current rate that we are going, where we have had the most days of load shedding in 2023, we will most likely lose 840,000 jobs if you were to go by the modelling that has been done by some of the reputable institutions.” Approximately 1.5 million jobs were lost in the last two years if one considers that 650,000 were lost in 2022.
In 2022, a research study conducted by the Small Enterprise Finance Agency (Sefa) found that small and medium enterprises suffer significantly due to load shedding. A staggering 76% of those polled indicated that they have no alternative power in place to mitigate the effect of load shedding. As if to mock Ramaphosa, Eskom ramped up load shedding to stage 3 after Ramaphosa had boastfully proclaimed that the “worst is behind us and the end of load shedding is within reach”.
South Africans have had to contend with the crumbling economic infrastructure. Millions live under degrading conditions with no clean water and proper sanitation. Their material conditions have regressed under the current administration. The New Dawn is but a pipe dream. When quizzed about what he has achieved since becoming president, Ramaphosa could do no more than use Covid-19 and State Capture as alibis for his demonstrable failure.
Regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, Ramaphosa is being less than frank. First, Covid-19 was a global phenomenon. It affected all countries. Many, including those comparable to South Africa’s economic development, have since bounced back.
Second, South Africa’s handling of Covid-19 was far from stellar. To quote Peter Bruce, it was nothing short of an omnishambles – “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations” (Sunday Times, July 19, 2020).
Third, the economy was already on its knees before the onset of Covid-19. As stated before, under his administration “there were eight out of 10 quarters of declining gross fixed capital formation (GFCF), a measure of investment, before the lockdown at the end of March 2020”.
The State Capture alibi can also not be sustained. Despite having promised to implement the recommendations of the State Capture Commission, Ramaphosa’s cabinet consists of individuals who were implicated in State Capture in his cabinet. Some were promoted to cushy portfolios.
Faced with an impending loss of power in the coming national elections, the ANC is displaying the same paranoia that afflicted the National Party in 1994. With nothing to show for his performance, Ramaphosa has understandably asked voters to judge the ANC by its performance over the last 30 years. Taking a leaf from apartheid masters, he has also embarked on the foul practice of instilling fear in the African majority. With a full appreciation that The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds nearly 1.3 million students a year, Ramaphosa sought to use this as an election gambit. He reportedly remarked that “if the ANC fails to attain the majority vote, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and social grants may be scrapped”. Joining the chorus of condemnation, the City Press Editorial (Jan 14, 2024) is spot on in reminding South Africans what they are dealing with.
“How nauseating and cowardly for Ramaphosa to pronounce on a public platform that social grants would disappear should the South African electorate fail to vote to retain his party in power in this year’s elections. This is fearmongering on steroids… Ramaphosa is telling a despicable lie.”
Perhaps the most worrying is the re-entry of the words “insurrection” and “regime change” in the public discourse. These concepts can conveniently be used to undermine South Africa’s democratic experiment. The Ramaphosa administration has in the past unleashed members of the South African National Defence Force on unarmed citizens. Democracy is too important to be reduced to be at the service of one man or one party. Be warned; dictatorship never announces itself. There is nothing exceptional about South Africa.
*Prof. Seepe is an independent political analyst
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL