Rhetoric of aspirations, failed promises, outrageous claims

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation Address at the City Hall. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation Address at the City Hall. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 14, 2024

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There is something Daliesque about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2024 State of the Nation address (Sona) last Thursday, as if his speech writer had captured its essence straight from the playbook of the Spanish surrealist art eccentric.

At least Salvador Dali can claim fame to additional artistic alternativist periods other than Surrealism such as Cubism, Dada and Modern art.

In contrast, the playbook of Ramaphosa and his governing ANC is a surreal “one-track mind” narrative bordering on a curious and seemingly desperate diet that encapsulates the nostalgic backstory of the liberation movement in its century-old struggle against colonialism and apartheid towards freedom leading up to the historic inaugural democratic vote in 1994 that propelled the ANC to power.

There was mention of some of his government’s limited achievements since 2019 but his speech was mostly a rhetoric of aspirations, denialism and unfulfilled pledges far removed from the everyday reality of the lived experience of most of his compatriots.

Only a few days ago, South Africans were clobbered by yet another increase in petrol prices as if the cost-of-living crisis is a mere economic formality.

As the ANC mark 30 years of uninterrupted rule since April 27, 1994 coinciding almost to the day with the scheduled general election 2024 (GE 2024) in early May, one would have thought that it was high time that each administration took ownership of their stewardship of the country and the state of the nation’s political, economic, financial, development and societal metrics, along with the metrics of poverty alleviation, inequality, security and numerous others.

After casting his vote in 1994, Madiba poignantly declared: “This is the beginning of a new era. We have moved from an era of pessimism, division, limited opportunities, turmoil and conflict. We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building.”

That hope was backed by concrete real economy and societal achievements. Madiba’s presidency, under the watch of finance minister Trevor Manuel, saw a mini African economic miracle underpinned by economic stability and high gross domestic product (GDP) growth through targeted reforms from 1994 to 2009. The gains were substantial. Employment and university student numbers doubled.

Ten formal houses were built for every new shack being erected. The murder rate was halved. Economic growth rose to an average 5% a year between 1994 and 2007 – the first time it had done so since 1970.

Government debt levels halved and a Budget surplus was recorded – achievements for which the ANC government never received due credit or recognition, especially from sections of the local and the international media.

The gains were made in the face of considerable scepticism and dismissive cynicism that the nascent democracy would not be able to turn around the near-bankrupt economy the apartheid regime had left and that it would spiral into a free fall of higher public debt and inflation.

In contrast, Ramaphosa’s riposte in his 2024 Sona was a gratuitous attempt at continuity politics to give the erroneous impression that what his government had achieved since his election in 2019 was a natural extension to Madiba’s governance legacy.

“Over the last three decades,” he declared, “we have been on a journey, striving together to achieve a new society – a national democratic society. We have transformed the lives of millions of South Africans, providing the necessities of life and creating opportunities that never existed before.”

For most of those decades, Ramaphosa was not involved in the government, instead opting out of serving under Madiba and turning to the private sector to make his multibillion rand fortune.

The reality is far removed from what Ramaphosa said in his Sona. The Updated January 2024 International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook estimates South Africa’s real GDP growth at 0.6% in 2023, projected to rise to 1.0% this year and 1.3% in 2025. The stubbornly subdued economic growth pales into insignificance compared with the 2.8%, 3.0% and 3.1% figures for Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and South Africa’s arch-rival.

Even in the Rainbow Nation’s darkest decade of state capture under discredited and now suspended ex-president Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa served as his deputy and was aware of the shenanigans of rampant corruption and cronyism, which he failed to call out. The true cost of state capture will probably never be known. Independent estimates range from R400 billion to more than R1 trillion.

Even the president’s own account, in his Sona, of asset freezes and recovery of stolen money related to state capture is a confused mishmash, freezing orders of R14bn granted to the National Prosecuting Authority’s Asset Forfeiture Unit, R8.6bn seized in corrupt proceeds, R4.8bn in related unpaid taxes to the South African Revenue Service, and the Special Investigating Unit instituting civil litigation totalling R64bn.

Nevertheless, his government should be commended for raking in at least some of the stolen proceeds, albeit they are a smidgeon of the true liability to the National Treasury and the taxpayer.

Consider the poverty metrics to which Ramaphosa alluded. True, fewer South Africans go hungry, and fewer live in poverty today. This is largely due to a labyrinth of generous safety nets that rightly target welfare payments to the vulnerable, disabled, children, and the elderly. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the safety nets have also extended to the unemployed through the special SRD Grant, which has been extended unsustainably to some nine million unemployed people every month.

In 1993, according to the World Bank, South Africa had 71.1% of its population living in poverty. By 2010, the poverty rate had dropped to 60.9% under Madiba’s presidency – a poverty alleviation of 10.2%. In contrast to the Zuma decade and two years into Ramaphosa’s first term, the poverty rate reached 55.5% in 2020, which is a decrease of 5.4% – almost a 50% drop in what Madiba’s administration achieved.

If Sona 2024 was an attempt at a whiff of an ANC GE2024 manifesto, it is a damp squib of a document, and a mismatch of the limited socio-economic gains, the rhetoric of aspirations, failed promises and some of the outrageous claims with the reality on the ground for millions of South Africans.

What is supposed to be a defining and perhaps most important career political speech for the president, at a time when the latest Ipsos poll suggests that the ANC is in serious danger of losing its majority for the first time and perhaps on the road to the vagaries of coalition government, might suggest that Ramaphosa has lost the will to govern and that the once iconic party of liberation is plagued by “ANC fatigue” among many of its own supporters and the electorate at large.

The party of Dube, Plaatje, Luthuli, Maxeke, Mandela and hundreds of other stalwarts should be riding the crest of a foreign policy wave for its stand for justice and freedom for the Palestinians in the eyes of most of the world through its unilateral application to the International Court of Justice to investigate Israel’s “genocidal action against civilians and children” in Gaza.

It should also be capitalising on an opposition landscape – weak, divided and discredited by foreign-inspired political donations in the case of the Multi-Party Charter Alliance – a motley crew of strange bedfellows led by the DA and Action SA; Jacob Zuma’s new uMkhonto Wesizwe Party; and Julius Malema’s EFF, which could turn out to be the unlikely kingmaker should the ANC lose its majority – all of whose raison d’etre is to see the back of the ANC. The main takeaways of Sona 2024 – fighting crime and corruption, unemployment, eliminating load shedding and promoting renewable energy, the National Health Insurance Bill, the extension of social relief distress (SRD) welfare handouts notwithstanding, the elephant in the room for the ANC seems to be the shackles of its disastrous rule over the past decade.

“We have endured times of great difficulty, when the strength of our constitutional democracy has been severely tested,” declared Ramaphosa.

Perhaps the most sanguine truism of his speech.

* Parker is an economist and writer in London

Cape Times

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