By Professor Sipho Seepe

Those excitedly waiting to listen to President Ramaphosa deliver this year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) are well advised to heed Mmusi Maimane’s 2019 admonition.

Maimane summed up what to expect: “We are a State of big promises. We’re a State of Commissions, Task Teams, and Road Shows for every possible problem. But when it comes to actually doing things, we are a State of No Action. Every single SONA…has been nothing but a long list of things that sound good and sound busy, with very little meaningful action. And I don’t think this is what you want.” (The South African Op-ed 12/02/2019).

Understandably, some would be quick to say Maimane is a discredited former leader of the opposition. But Maimane is not alone. Former activist and professor emeritus at the University of South Africa, Raymond Suttner concurs somewhat.

“There is little evidence from the years of Ramaphosa’s presidency of the ANC and the country to suggest that he is committed to the transformation of the living conditions of the oppressed, committed to non-violence, to end the violence perpetrated against the most vulnerable in this country, the oppressed people of this country,” wrote Suttner in The Daily Maverick, in 2021. 

To drive the point further, Suttner was even more damning: “There is little in the record of Ramaphosa to suggest anything more than a self-indulgent, narcissistic attachment to the idea of being president, a presidency that has little content. What ideas, what vision, what ethics, if any, drive this man, and for that matter the organisation that he leads?”

The State of the Nation Address has become a meaningless ritual. With a leadership bereft of vision and ideas, SONA has been reduced to a managerial exercise comprising wish lists that are rarely honoured. At times the wish list is so outlandish that television hosts end up finding refuge in discussing the dress sense (or lack thereof) of members of parliament. This is preferred to being part of the entire whole absurdity. 

There was a time when SONA provided broad thinking about where the ruling party is taking the country. But with the party embroiled in incessant internal squabbles, this has become anyone’s guess.

Ideally, SONA should be about evaluating how far the country has come regarding the aspirations that it had set itself. In this regard, the Constitution enjoins us to, inter alia, recognise the injustices of our past, heal the divisions of the past, improve the quality of life of all citizens, and build a united and democratic South Africa. Because we have fallen far short of meeting these constitutional injunctions, many of the SONAs have been laced with too much escapism.

Our penchant for delusions would however not change reality. Former President Thabo Mbeki was the first to jolt us out of the world of make-believe with his two-nation speech. He cut through the claptrap of both the resort to the misguided notion of rainbowism and ‘the tranquilising pill of gradualism’.

Mbeki correctly observed: “South Africa is a country of two nations. One of these nations is white, and relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication, and other infrastructure.

“The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general, and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication, and other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity, with that right being equal within this black nation only to the extent that it is equally incapable of realisation.”

Former President Jacob Zuma was to revisit the same theme in the 2017 SONA: “Twenty-two years into our freedom and democracy, the majority of black people are still economically disempowered. They are dissatisfied with the economic gains from liberation. The gap between the annual average household incomes of African-headed households and their white counterparts remains shockingly huge.

“White households earn at least five times more than black households, according to Statistics SA. The situation [concerning] the ownership of the economy also mirrors that of household incomes.…the representation of whites at the top management level amounted to 72% while African representation was at 10%. The representation of coloureds stood at 4.5% and Indians at 8.7%.”

Invoking the former ANC President Oliver Tambo’s 1981 admonition that “to allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the roots of racial supremacy and exploitation and does not represent even the shadow of liberation”, Zuma concluded by pointing out that “there can be no sustainability in any economy if the majority is excluded in this manner.”

Ramaphosa’s response to this stubborn gloomy reality was to venture, inter alia, into the world of dreams in which the country “has prioritised its rail networks and is producing high-speed trains connecting our megacities and the remotest areas of our country. We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from eThekwini back here in Cape Town.

“We want a South Africa that doesn’t simply export its raw materials but has become a manufacturing hub for key components used in electronics, automobiles, and computers. We must be a country that can feed itself and that harnesses the latest advances in smart agriculture.” (SONA 2019).

Ramaphosa was quickly woken up from slumber when he found himself trapped for almost four hours when he took a train ride which should have taken forty-five minutes. The dream turned into a nightmare in broad daylight. This was one of his many public relations exercises that had gone awry. Let us hope that when he wakes up from his now routine slumber, he will not have reversed all the gains that had been made on the economic front.

SONA has become all about smoke and mirrors. It is about pretending to do something about the challenges the country faces. In cancelling his trip to Davos, Ramaphosa wants to be seen to be doing something about the energy crisis. 

The best he has done so far is repackage what former President Jacob Zuma said in his last SONA in 2017: “Work is continuing to ensure energy security. Renewable energy forms an important part of our energy mix, which also includes electricity generation from gas, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and coal. The government is committed to the overall Independent Power Producer Programme, and we are expanding the programme to other sources of energy including coal and gas, in addition to renewable energy.”

Back then, there was no pandemic load-shedding.

With nothing new to offer President Ramaphosa may be anxiously wishing to cancel this year’s SONA. Fortunately for Ramaphosa, he can get away with saying an infinite deal of nothing.

Professor Sipho Seepe is a Higher Education Consultant

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