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A glimpse at the year ahead for president and nation

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA) – President Cyril Ramaphosa responds to the Sona debate at the Cape Town City Hall on February 16, 2023. Although the precise impact of the state of disaster cannot be determined yet, it is not premature to believe that the energy crisis will become a high stakes game during the 2024 general elections, the writer says.

By Sethulego Matebesi

A maxim says it is not enough to know that people have made mistakes; we need to understand why they made the mistakes if we hope to prevent them or others from making the same mistakes.

While South Africans are still trying to make sense of the many lofty promises made about measures to deal with the catastrophic energy crisis over the past four years, unsurprisingly, the restoration of energy security also dominated the 2023 State of the Nation Address (Sona).

Still, the reasons behind the failure of past intervention measures and the progress in restructuring the state’s energy utility, Eskom, remain a mystery. There is enough cause for concern over Eskom’s stance that an ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations that consistently break down is one of the reasons for loadshedding.

What happened to planning? No wonder the need to achieve quick success in resolving the energy crisis has placed a premium on maintaining citizens’ trust. As a result, the government proposed new initiatives to address the insecurity of the electricity supply by declaring a state of emergency to avert a complete blackout and appointing a new Minister of Electricity within the presidency to lead the government’s short-term energy crisis response.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has already indicated that the criticism of the minister of electricity’s position is misguided. In other words, from the government’s perspective, the impact of its decisions does not matter. To South African citizens, however, it matters a great deal as they have borne the burden of loadshedding and the rising cost of living.

Above all, those who can cushion the blow of the energy crisis will want to see that the maximum value for public money is achieved. The energy crisis has been the subject of fierce arguments over the past few years. So too, have deliberations on the government’s capability to deal with the crisis.

And although the precise impact of the state of disaster, which began with immediate effect after its announcement in the Sona, cannot be determined at this stage, it is not premature to believe that the energy crisis will become a high stakes bidding game during the 2024 general elections. From the responses of the ANC parliamentarians and alliance partners, one gets the sense that they sincerely wish there could have been a less dramatic option for the electricity minister, who has been touted to serve merely as a project manager.

Disastrous decisions are a recipe for catastrophic events and there has not been a time in South African history since 1994 that our presidents have not faced one scandal or another. After having temporarily thwarted the Phala Phala saga and emerging victorious as leader of the ANC at the 55th National Conference in December 2022, one would assume that Ramaphosa would have assimilated the lessons from past events.

The post-Sona 2023 political landscape points to a challenging year for Ramaphosa. It is a truism that an organisation’s culture is determined by its leader. And since politics is not an exercise in objectivity, it is for this reason that several expected decisions by Ramaphosa will determine how he will navigate between being regarded as a heroic figure and a victim of political persecution. Objectively, it is hard not to agree with critics that a state of disaster will open the floodgates of collusion and corruption, which are distinct problems within South Africa’s public procurement space.

At this point, one wonders if this is not yet another gimmick to extend the patronage network of the presidency. Another major decision facing Ramaphosa is the much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. Deputy President David Mabuza’s announcement that he resigned, only to be asked by the presidency to hang on, provides a fascinating insight into how difficult it can become to exercise what some may regard as the mundane task of replacing Cabinet ministers.

And looking at the organisational footprint of the ANC, I reckon Ramaphosa will avoid a situation where a Cabinet reshuffle becomes another political hot potato from within his own organisation.

There is a fierce power war waging within the ANC. As a result, time will tell whether the president will be brave enough to replace poor-performing ministers instead of using proxies such as the new minister of energy.

And to be clear – why we fail to confront under-performing ministers and public servants is a vexing question. Indications are that there seems to be no aversion to brevity when it comes to political expediency but to live up to the responsibility of accelerating structural reforms that significantly impact the country’s growth trajectory positively and reduce policy uncertainty.

Continuing to routinely neglect these obligations is bound to create a more extensive trust gap between the government and citizens.

Prof Sethulego Matebesi – Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State