President Cyril Ramaphosa will deliver his second State of the Nation Address to Parliament in 2019 and his third major statement of intent since the ouster of Jacob Zuma as head of state in February 2018.
This is what we will be looking out for when Ramaphosa delivers his speech at 19:00 on Thursday evening.
1. Clear leadership on the economy
South Africa’s struggling economy, beset by poor policy, bad implementation and even worse prospects, remains the number one problem for Ramaphosa’s government. Policy uncertainty leads to poor confidence, low growth and few jobs. GDP contracted by 3,2% year-on-year in the last quarter while the SA Reserve Bank, one of the few institutions not overrun by state capture stormtroopers in the past years, has become a site of ideological and opportunistic factional conflict. State-owned enterprises remain in strife (Eskom and SAA have both lost CEOs) with Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan receiving stern (and shortsighted) resistance to SOE reforms.
Ramaphosa needs to acknowledge his finance minister’s warnings about threats to the fiscus and the hard choices that have to be made – and then make them. The SARB must receive vocal support and SOEs must be restructured. Otherwise Ramaphosa will forever remain beholden to ANC infighting and point-scoring.
2. Becoming a statesman
During the recent election the ANC was given a mandate to govern with a reduced majority of 57%. The party does not enjoy unqualified support anymore, given that more than 42% of voters rejected it and millions and millions of eligible voters did not even bother to go and cast their ballots. Ramaphosa was Nelson Mandela’s choice to succeed him as president because he believed Ramaphosa, perhaps more than anyone, understood the imperative of nationbuilding and reconciliation, two concepts increasingly being rejected and mocked by younger and frustrated South Africans.
Ramaphosa built his campaign for the ANC’s leadership on a return to the party’s values of non-racialism and tolerance. In a society fractured by racism, where antagonism is becoming the default setting and where distrust is rife, the head of state needs to rise above name-calling and insults and talk to all citizens. He cannot shy away from difficult debates. His voice must be heard.
3. Building an effective public service
Whether or not France’s Louis XIV said “I am the state” or not is a point of debate among historians, but what is certain is that the ANC has since 1994 come to completely believe that one equals the other – with disastrous consequences. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni warned in his budget speech in February that the public sector wage bill is impossibly high and eminently unsustainable. Internal ANC machinations however are preventing the reformists in Ramaphosa’s government from tackling the problem of a bloated, expensive and inefficient civil service. If indeed they want to.
The ANC, in line with their guiding ideology of the National Democratic Revolution and the mechanics of cadre deployment, believes that the state is at the centre of power rather than the enabler of private growth and progress. Some in the party believe this must change, however, given the excesses in employment and disasters in service delivery over the last decade or more.
Ramaphosa has previously said that the ship of state will be righted. Not much has happened, bar a slightly smaller and symbolic national executive. Will he have the gumption to make the necessary cuts, despite internal ANC opposition?
4. The scourge of crime
There was a period where it felt as if South Africa was winning the war against crime. But recent times have seen an increase in the crimes South Africans fear most (murder, hijacking, robbery) while repairs to the broken criminal justice system have been happening at a stunted pace, if at all. The low-level war on the Cape Flats is intensifying, with children caught in the cross fire of warring gangs while members of the police’s newly established Anti-Gang Unit fight among themselves. House robberies are commonplace and incidents of rape and gender violence fill daily news reports.
The police, the National Prosecuting Authority, crime intelligence and the Hawks were all victims of institutional disembowelling under Zuma. Ramaphosa must speak about the extent and nature of crime, which government is failing to curb, and he needs to present a coherent plan with deadlines on how his government is planning to repair the police and other institutions.
5. The lasting effect of state capture and grand corruption
Ramaphosa has proven himself to be a stickler for process and procedure – especially if it can serve him politically. He has refused – on the surface, at least – to intervene in the continuing investigations into state capture and hasn’t made any public statements which could seem to influence Shamila Batohi, the national director of public prosecutions, looking to make her first high-profile public arrest. But the remnants of the state capture project, those rent-seekers looking to extract as much resources from the state as they can, remain in government, Parliament and the ANC.
Ramaphosa must use the “bully pulpit” (as Theodore Roosevelt described the American presidency a hundred years ago) of the State of the Nation Address to send a message to those in his own party and elsewhere that the abuse of tax rands will not be tolerated anymore. He cannot talk about arrests, but he sure can fire a shot across the bow of the capturers.