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SONA 2023: More of the same – with a dash of desperation



Reactions to president Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address are flooding in, with most commentators left wanting.

Ramaphosa delivered his by-the-numbers address on Thursday evening (9 February), featuring all the qualities South Africans have come to expect from the annual event.

Proceedings were disrupted by the Economic Freedom Fighters, who were subsequently ejected from the sitting, and the president delivered a speech touching on all the expected points: the power crisis, economic growth, poverty, and promising a better life for all.

The stand-out announcement from the address was the declaration of South Africa’s energy crisis as a national state of disaster. However, even this was broadly expected, after the ANC last week indicated that this was the path it was going to take in government.

The rest of the address was littered with information South Africans are already aware of (there is an energy crisis; there is a plan to deal with the energy crisis; the plan is not happening any time soon), and ultimately painted a bleak picture for the state of the nation, with a hopeful message that the country will rise up to meet the challenges.

Broadly, the SONA:

  • Emphasised the risk that insufficient energy supply poses to growth and investment in the economy.
  • Noted the need to arrest the deterioration in basic service delivery rolled out from defunct municipalities.
  • Acknowledged the widening trust deficit between itself and other key stakeholders in the economy as is evidenced by slow progress in socioeconomic development.
  • Highlighted the shortcomings of law enforcement agencies which have led to a rising level of lawlessness in the country.
  • Confirmed the continuation of the social relief of distress (SRD) grant.
  • Underlined the poor performance of the country’s municipalities and offered up interventions to improve professionalism in public service.

Civil society, businesses, unions and political parties were not convinced, however. This was the general reaction to the speech:

More empty promises

According to the civil action group Outa, the president’s speech missed the mark and delivered only more empty promises.

“The President’s State of the Nation Address failed to inspire confidence. He acknowledged many of the problems but did not offer believable solutions. He offered many promises, many of which we’ve heard before,” the group said.

“It would be wonderful if all these promises were realised or even underway. The President sought to inspire hope, but he succeeded in reminding us how bad the situation really is. His address confirms the country has been poorly managed for too long.”

Like many others in the country, Outa took exception to the declaration of a state of disaster over the energy crisis. The prevailing view regarding this is that none of the measures needed to address the ongoing power crisis requires the extreme measure of giving those in government extraordinary powers.

“We do not believe that a state of disaster will cure the government’s inability to address the crisis. It will not make previously inept officials and ministers suddenly competent and willing to do their jobs,” Outa said.

The group also took issue with Ramaphosa’s announcement that he will be adding a third minister to the pool to deal with the electricity problems. Outa said that the cabinet is already bloated, and another set of eyes on the problem is unlikely to achieve anything other than further hampering processes.

We are on our own

Yael Geffen, CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, said the takeaway from this year’s SONA is that it will ultimately be up to the people of South Africa to overcome the challenges faced by the country.

The property expert said that the same promises have been heard every year for the last six years and that any sane audience would recognise how hollow they are.

Tellingly, the only solutions mentioned by the president are promises of something being done, with no timelines or indications of accountability. Geffen took exception to another minister being appointed, further bloating the government and adding to the public sector wage bill.

“For the government to prove it is serious about solving the energy crisis, it needs to set a deadline to end load shedding so that we can rescue our economy and create jobs. And if it doesn’t deliver by the deadline, then it needs to concede its failure, eradicate the rot of SEOs and privatise these sectors so that efficiencies and solutions can be implemented.”

He said in the light of the government’s failures, it will ultimately be up to South Africans to resolve the crisis.

“South Africans have skills and we’re an entrepreneurial nation. We’ve also demonstrated through the years that when we come together, we have a very strong voice and there’s never been a more crucial time to use it.”

“Our country doesn’t deserve this crisis. Our people deserve economic growth and they deserve jobs. Non-delivery is no longer an option.”

Nothing new, but maybe some hope

Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA) is of the view that, even though the SONA delivered very little in the way of new measures to drag the country out of the doldrums, it is hopeful of the progress being made.

As is a recurring theme among responses, BLSA does not believe that a state of disaster is the way to go in dealing with the energy crisis – however, contrary to the pessimism expressed by others, the business group said that the declaration could actually help, if used correctly.

The group also had a more moderate view of having another minister in charge of electricity. It said that it is encouraging that Ramaphosa sees the urgency to have direct involvement with oversight of the crisis through the presidency.

“If used responsibly and effectively though, the state of the disaster, along with the new electricity minister driving the energy reforms, do offer hope of faster implementation of the measures needed to end load-shedding in the short term and secure our energy supply over the long term through increased generation capacity,” it said.

BLSA was also broadly supported by pro-business measures like the further cutting of red tape, the promise of helping to ease the burden on small businesses, and the repeat of the promise to address the country’s skills crisis through the visa regime.

Broadly positive, but wait and see

Momentum Investments said that markets didn’t really react to the SONA, which is in line with historical reactions. However, the group said that the measures announced by the president will be seen as broadly positive.

“The success of these interventions relies heavily on government funding, and as such, the upcoming national budget plays a pivotal role in getting the ball rolling on implementing these announced plans,” said Momentum.

Sanisha Packirisamy, Economist at Momentum Investments, said that garnering positive consumer, business and investor sentiment requires a concerted effort to align interests between government, business, labour and civil society.

“The SONA highlighted that as a country we have not yet achieved this. Nevertheless, the intention remains to conclude a social compact so as to enact joint action in a number of areas that are central to growing the economy,” she said.

An act of desperation

The Democratic Alliance was one of the first groups out the door with a reaction to the SONA, vowing to challenge the declared state of disaster in court.

The party said the speech reeked of desperation, and the extreme measures taken underlined exactly that.

The DA said that the state of disaster would be abused by politicians and open the country up to further corruption and looting, and it also pushed back against adding yet another minister into the mix.

This sentiment was echoed by the union Solidarity, which intends to launch its own legal challenge along the same lines.

The DA also raised concerns about the further centralisation of power within the presidency, alluding to the president setting up a second cabinet in government that lacks parliamentary oversight.

“Instead of decentralising control and trusting in the market mechanism, Ramaphosa has opted to centralise even more power in his own Super Presidency – which lacks democratic oversight mechanisms, with Parliament lying in ruins and the Presidency having no portfolio committee to oversee it,” he said.

“More centralisation and less accountability is exactly the opposite of what South Africa urgently needs right now.”

The rest of Ramaphosa’s address was characterised by delusion, the party said.

“He talked of electric cars in a country that does not have electricity. He talked of hope in a country that has lost all hope.”

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