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Sona deflection masks Ramaphosa’s leadership failures

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Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers / Taken on February 8, 2024 – President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State on the Nation Address at the Cape Town City Hall on Thursday, February 8.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

On Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his eighth State of the Nation Address (Sona). This was the last Sona under the sixth administration since the demise of apartheid in 1994.

As would be expected, the president’s address attracted accolades and criticisms. While some reflected on the speech with emotion, others based their responses on tangible facts and were objective in their analysis.

First, the president touched on many issues which most of us had predicted that he was going to touch on.

Second, given that 2024 marks 30 years since the ANC ascended to power, it was a foregone conclusion that the president would reflect on what the ANC-led government has been able to do for the country since 1994.

Third, at an international level, it was expected that the president would talk about continental and global issues, and explain South Africa’s role in those developments.

Fourth, it was expected that Ramaphosa would sustain the narrative that he came in to fix what went wrong under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

Lastly, the president was bound to concede some of the failures of his administration, but reasons for such failures cited exogenous causal factors.

On these grounds, the president followed the script as envisaged. But what is important to note is whether the president was truthful and honest in his address. In response to this question, I will identify some issues which stood out for me.

I found the president’s address to be structurally weak. He touched on various issues but in a piecemeal fashion. What would have worked well would have been a structure which showed chronology.

He should have begun by praising the country for having sustained democracy for 30 years. Since the ANC has been leading all six administrations, the president would not be wrong to praise the ANC for having played a leading role.

Logically, he could have identified some of the failures and causal factors.

Second, the president should have zoomed into his administration starting from February 2018 when he completed Zuma’s term and from 2019 when his full first term in office commenced. Here, he should have reflected on everything that he had promised the nation, identified his successes, accounted for the failures, and indicated how he planned to do things differently if the ANC were to win the coming election.

This would have presented him as someone who was sincere, honest, and objective. Instead, the president used this year’s Sona as a campaign strategy.

This was not right since he was not in an ANC rally. His statement that those who think that the ANC will not come back are wrong confirms the assertion that the president was in a campaign mode.

What stood out from the Sona is that many of the promises made before were repeated once again. This was done contrary to compelling evidence that these were empty promises. For example, once again, the president promised the nation that the end of load shedding was in sight. Less than two hours later, the country moved from stage 2 to 3. By yesterday morning, the country was hit with stage 4 load shedding. This made a mockery of his promise.

The president’s imaginary “Tintswalo” was a good strategy to paint a picture of good progress and a caring state. However, the question remains, how many of these Tintswalo children do we have in the country? Does this chosen character enjoy all the things that the president claims she has enjoyed?

One example is the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Many deserving students are not approved. Some who are approved, receive the money for two to three months, then it stops. Others receive the money intermittently with no explanation for the intervals. Sadly, there is no back pay. The president remained silent on where the money goes after having not reached its intended recipients.

When zooming into his administration, the president claimed that he spent time re-establishing state institutions and appointing the right people into positions. He also talked about addressing the problems caused by state capture.

In so doing, the president presented himself as an outsider. The reality is that he was part and parcel of everything that went wrong when government funds were looted. The correct language would have been for him to say that his administration was correcting the mistakes the ANC as a collective had made in the past.

Linked to what has been mentioned, he claimed that his administration had been hard at work implementing the recommendations of the Zondo Commission. He cited various amounts of money which the government had either recovered or was in the process of recovering.

Noticeably, he said nothing about the failure to apprehend and arrest high-ranking officials implicated in the report.

On corruption, Ramaphosa claimed the country was on the right trajectory. The reality is that corruption has become worse under his administration. According to the global corruption index, South Africa has moved from number 43 to 41. This means that corruption under Ramaphosa has worsened compared to the Zuma era. Covid-19 created a space for even more corruption.

Lastly, the president blamed external factors for his administration’s failures – citing Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, and now the Israel-Palestine war.

In short, the president made critical points but packaged them incorrectly and was not objective in his analysis of the failures of his administration.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University.