17 February 2008 is likely to occupy a special place in the short history of the new Republic of South Africa. Delivering his maiden State of the Nation Address, the newly elected President Matema Cyril Ramaphosa entrenched himself as the hope that the country has been yearning for. This comes after years of policy drift, state decay and downright thieving on the part of many in the government of President Jacob Zuma. It is trite to say President Zuma himself became synonymous with the project of State Capture, as exhibited by his pride and public ownership of his relationship with the now on the run Gupta brothers.
There is no gainsaying that most South Africans view Ramaphosa as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant political environment that is running short of creative ideas on how to get the country out of the rut it is in. It is a thing of wonder, when even leaders of the opposition are complementary of a speech by the leader of the ruling party. Speaking during the debate on the State of the Nation Address, both Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema expressed a willingness to work with the new President towards charting a new course for the country. This is significant. It would be recalled that for the last 3 years, the Economic Freedom Fighters has staged a walk out of Parliament on every occasion of the State of the Nation Address, signalling its lack of recognition for President Zuma and his government. It would also be recalled that in 2016, Mmusi made an impassioned speech during which he called President Zuma a broken man leading a broken country.
Though a State of the Nation Address can never really be expected to provide details on policy plans, the 2018 address provides enough meat to point the way in which the country will be moving. Below are some of the critical issues that are worth looking out for;
1. The return of advisory bodies
President Ramaphosa spoke about establishing an economic advisory body that will advise him on the best way forward in terms of the country’s economic trajectory. It would be recalled that Advisory bodies were a critical lever of governance for the Thabo Mbeki Presidencies. These were disbanded on the ascendance of President Zuma. Such Advisory can play a useful role in creating engagement between government and stakeholders, provided they are not stuffed with people who share a similar outlook on matters under consideration
2. Consultation with Opposition Parties
President Ramaphosa has made a commitment to engage leaders of the opposition parties on a one on one basis to build relations across the aisle. This is a major step to thaw what has become too adversarial a relationship, to the detriment to good policy making and engagement.
3. Mining Back in Fashion
President Ramaphosa spoke glowingly about the potential contribution of the mining sector. Where others see a sector in decline, he continues to see untold potential in the sector’s ability to transform the lives of South Africans and provide a fillip to economic development. Perhaps there can be no better demonstration of this belief than the agreement reached on 18 February 2018 with the Chambers of Mines and labour unions to suspend court action over the Mining Charter in order to give negotiations a chance.
4. Land Redistribution
As expected, land expropriation was always going to arouse the Democratic Alliance. This is understandable. However, it may be that the DA is flogging a dead horse and setting up strawmen by comparing what is decidedly a constitutionally enshrined process to the chaos of the Zimbabwean process. In this respect, Cyril is best advised to enlist the services of the EFF in addressing concerns of the DA as the Commander in Chief did not mince his words in responding to the ambivalence of the DA. In the words of Julius Malema, MP, the DA’s ability to retain the Metros under its governance will depend largely on its attitude to the land question.
Government will need to balance the need for redress against the needs of economic development, stability and food security. Already, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi made an impassioned reply to the SONA, highlighting the need for government to be careful in earmarking land for restitution and redistribution, recognising that structures such as the Ingonyama Trust must not be included in the debate about expropriation. Large commercial farmers will no doubt bandy food insecurity and job losses in the farming sector.
President Ramaphosa briefly touched on agriculture as an important contributor to job creation in South Africa. If implemented faithfully, this commitment can significantly transform the lives of poor South Africans across the rural landscape. Provinces such as the Eastern Cape are sitting on untold potential in the form of arable land lying fallow due to lack of inputs and access to markets. Done correctly, agriculture could change the face of South Africa and bring many households out of poverty.
6. Free Higher Education
It may have been done opportunistically, but Free Higher Education is here to stay. Whatever reluctance the broader ANC leadership may have had about this, there can be no turning back on what remains essentially a good thing to have. In his SONA, President Ramaphosa provided a glimpse of how this is likely to be introduced, starting with first year students coming from households with an income of less than R350 000 annually. The details will be flashed out in the budget speech.
7. Reconfiguring the State
President Ramaphosa spoke at length about the need to relook the configuration of the state. This may include the jettisoning of some government Departments and the reconfiguration of mandates of others. This is an important consideration considering the cost of maintaining a large bureaucracy. Such a reconfiguration may also help to clarify roles where there are overlapping mandates; i.e. the Department of Women and Children has functions that are generally embedded in all other Departments. This is the same for the Department of Small Business Development, Economic Development and Trade and Industry.
Reconfiguring the state must also, by necessity, look into insulating technocrats from undue influence by political principals. The tragedy of Life Esidimeni is the perfect expression of what can happen when public officials are directed by politicians in the execution of their functions.
Overall, the speech seems to have hit the right notes and been accepted across the political spectrum. It remains to be seen how this will translate into a specific programme of action that will guide the country as we move into the electioneering season in the last quarter of 2018.