The Oasis Reporters
February 11, 2024
This year’s State of the Nation Address – delivered annually in February by South Africa’s president – was bound to be stuffed with electioneering messages and slogans. The country goes to the polls any time between May and August and there was no doubt that Cyril Ramaphosa would use the occasion to burnish the governing African National Congress’s reputation.
That’s indeed what he did. The upcoming elections are the most significant since the country became a democracy in 1994. Numerous opinion polls suggest the ANC will fall below 50% of the vote nationally for the first time, providing opportunities for opposition coalitions. A party needs to win 50% or more of the seats in parliament to form a government on its own.
Adding to the moment was the fact that this was the last state of the nation address of Ramaphosa’s term.
In his 105-minute address Ramaphosa tried to remind his audience of the government’s achievements over the past three decades of democracy.
These included 200 prosecutions for corruption, and new public-private partnerships to build power transmission lines.
The omissions included the persistence of chronic malnutrition, and the distressing number of ANC-run municipalities whose sewage treatment plants have broken down, which can no longer bill for electricity, and which fail to repair potholed roads.
As a political scientist I’ve studied South African politics for many years.
The president’s speech – looking back and ahead – couldn’t cover up the fact that the last five years have been some of the most difficult for ordinary South Africans. Power cuts have become more severe, joblessness continues to rise and the economy is performing poorly.
If he was hoping to liven up the ANC’s election chances, his speech might just not do it.
The contested record
Ramaphosa listed a number of achievements of the last 30 years as testimony of the advances made under successive ANC governments. But many of the claims rang hollow.
Poverty: In 1994 71% of South Africa’s population lived in poverty; today 55% do, he said, citing World Bank figures. He gave an example of a girl born in 1994 whose parents live in a house built by the state, who got a child grant, went to a free school with free meals, and obtained a bursary to graduate from a training college and start earning a living.
All this is true for millions of South Africans. The problem is that it’s not for millions of others.
Employment: The president devoted paragraphs of his speech to job opportunities created by various government programmes.
But this too was heavily criticised. To my knowledge, the phrase “job opportunity” is state-speak for a temporary job which always ends, usually after three months, to then be offered to someone else in the unemployment queue. Real unemployment – the expanded definition – is around 42%, up from 15% in 1994.
Energy: On the continuing power cuts Ramaphosa pledged that
the worst is behind us and an end to load-shedding is in reach.
He said public-private partnerships are building 14,000km of transmission cables. These will link up new solar and other power plants to an augmented national grid.
But South Africans have grown weary of unfulfilled promises. Many have been made before. People have become cynical about pledges of future electricity improvements. Sadly, the state power utility, Eskom, could not celebrate 2023 as its centenary. Last year saw the worst power cuts in the country’s history.
Investment and black ownership: The president reported that R1.5 trillion (US$79 billion) of new investment had come into South Africa since 2018, and that black ownership of mining had risen from 2% in 1994 to 39% today. A quarter of agricultural private land was now owned by black farmers, and the government’s goal of one-third of farm land being returned to black farmers by 2030 was now in reach.
But evidence shows land reform has a mixed record of successes and failures.
Minimum wage: Ramaphosa took a swipe at the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, by reminding South Africans that 6 million workers had had their pay raised by national minimum wages over the past few years.
The Democratic Alliance is opposed to minimum wages.
Social grants: Ramaphosa listed a host of social security measures. These included 9 million people on Social Relief of Distress grants (R350 or US$18.42 a month) which started during the COVID pandemic, and the 9 million school children receiving a free lunch daily. There are 62 million South Africans.
But even here the real story isn’t all that good. Malnutrition and hunger remain stubbornly persistent. National statistics show that 27% of children are stunted – under weight and under height for their age. Child grants cannot feed both a baby and its unemployed single mother.
Health: the president spoke of a new academic hospital under construction in Limpopo province. He did not mention that hundreds of newly graduated doctors cannot find jobs in the public health sector due to budget cuts compelling a freeze on filling empty posts.
What was left unsaid
In my view South Africans won’t be impressed by the speech. Previous State of the Nation addresses have not been followed by implementation. In one ill-advised one in 2019, the president fantasised about bullet trains, when his audience were desperately waiting for the resumption of service on slow train commuting routes. They still are.
The 2024 speech offers fertile material for opposition parties to score points against the ANC. They have already started to do so in TV interviews and other media: promises of an end to power cuts attract the most sarcasm.
This address had to be held in the old Cape Town city hall, rented from a DA-controlled municipality, because negligent security failed to prevent an arsonist from burning down the parliament building on Jauary 2022 – symptomatic of general state incompetence.
Parliamentary practice is that opposition parties are given at least two full days to criticise the State of the Nation address and to present their alternatives.
This address by and large repeats what the ANC and government have already said on several occasions. Likewise, the opposition responses are not new. It will be more of the same from both sides all the way to voting day.