SONA was an ‘opportunity lost’ to reassure public – CPLO

The Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) has released its reading of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 13 February. The CPLO describes the address as a “sombre note” about South Africa’s “dire” public finances. It highlights Ramaphosa’s recognition that consensus by means of social compacts “is a means of achieving progress, but expressed disappointment that failure to address corruption and tackle “the haunting spectre of xenophobia” was an “opportunity lost.”

After the now to be expected political antics of the third largest party resulted in a 90-minute delay in proceedings and a 10-minute suspension of the business of the House, President Ramaphosa was at last able to deliver a much-anticipated State of the Nation speech. It was long, about 7500 words, it took about 50 minutes to deliver, and was often quite heavy on detail.

The President delivered this SONA against the background of widely reported surveys which showed that only 28% of South Africans had confidence in the direction the country was moving in, while the surveys also showed that the he himself enjoyed a high degree of personal support at 61%. The level of national confidence was 10 percentage points less than in May 2019; hence there was an expectation that the President would leverage his personal support levels in order to push back against the dropping levels of confidence in the country’s future.

But he sounded a sombre note, referring to the dire state of our public finances, minimal economic growth for over a decade, power insecurity and its consequences, and – several times – state capture and corruption. Even the other aspects of our reality, the numbers of children in school, the demographics of the improved matric results, and the Springbok World Cup victory, came across as a respectful reminder rather than an excuse to underplay the ‘stark reality.’

Minister Ebrahim Patel commented afterwards that while the previous SONA was about putting down foundations, this one was about building on them. The President’s preferred theory of change, that of creating bridgeheads of consensus as a means of achieving progress, was very much in evidence: “Achieving consensus and building social compacts is not a demonstration of weakness. It is the very essence of who we are.” He framed several of the successes of recent times in this language, from the recovery of broken municipalities to the putative social compact on electricity. In one of two moments of cross-party consensus, the President’s affirmation of municipalities’ right to tap into non-Eskom electricity, and the permission for various groups to generate limited amounts of electricity, was warmly welcomed across the benches. The other agreement across parties was the anger they all felt at the behaviour of the EFF, and their shared commitment to have this behaviour referred to the powers and privileges committee.

A close reading of the speech suggests that the President sought to offer some confidence through a commitment to strengthening safety. There were references to gender-based violence, to tightening bail conditions, to stricter sentencing and to amendments to the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual Offences Act to better protect victims. He also spoke about an increased intake of people joining the police force, deployment of officers to protect tourists, and stronger anti-gang unitsin three provinces. The safety motif also found its way, expressed differently, into making the environment for investment and business more conducive. Everything from turnabout times for water use licenses, to easier registration, to meeting investment targets, spoke to the idea of safer business environments. There is however a long road ahead.

As was expected, Eskom, SAA, and the other SOEs came in for scrutiny. On Eskom, the President spoke of divisionalising the structure (the language favoured by the new CEO). He confirmed that load-shedding will remain part of the immediate future. Some commentators have read into the speech the first moves towards privatization. The announcement of the creation of a national bank and a sovereign wealth fund came as a bit of a surprise, not least because such creations need good seed funding, and it is difficult to see how this could happen in the present economic climate. Both have been part of the ANC’s policy. On the other hand there was no mention of the nationalization of the Reserve Bank, which has also of late featured in the ANC policy. Both the expropriation of land legislation and the NHI were progressing through Parliament after an extensive listening process. Sadly, the speech was short on hope or even recognition of the dire situation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and the haunting spectre of xenophobia.

As he has done before, the President was able to tick off some areas of progress on previous promises: the new science and innovation university in Ekhuruleni; the long-awaited dam on the Umzimvubu river; the new high-tech city near Lanseria, etc. Some small measure of confidence is ignited when progress can be noted. If the last SONA was big on dreams but short on specifics and low on progress reports, this SONA returned to the tradition of reporting back to the country. The focus on youth and the commitment to skilling young people struck an important note. The President was thick on detail in this regard: a new college, five new prototype sites to support young people, short courses to skill them for jobs and job readiness, will all offer some hope. We will need to wait for the Budget Speech in just under two weeks to get answers about how these initiatives are to be funded.

Many had hoped for a sign in this year’s SONA that the country was moving closer to a point where we might see action against those responsible for corruption, state capture and the theft of public money. While most people agree that one cannot push the pace of the commissions of enquiry, or take cases to court that are ill prepared, and while we cannot succumb to populist type voices baying for revenge, nonetheless the country needs a sign that the wheels of justice are indeed turning. It was interesting to note that, the day before the SONA, a wide variety of responsible civil society organizations, led by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, mounted a public call to make 2020 the ‘Year of the Orange Overalls.’ It might well be said that this campaign, coming from people and groups who have no party political points to score, is an important reading of the political temperature on the ground. The SONA would have been a good moment to reassure the country that this government is making good on its promises to clean up the mess it inherited. In this respect, it was an opportunity lost.

Fr Peter-John Pearson
Director of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office

You can read the full State of the Nation Address for 2020 by President Cyril Ramaphosa here.

Source: CPLO (

This article has been re-published with the kind permission of Spotlight Africa

Photo Credit: President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering the 2020 State of the Nation Address on the occasion of a Joint Setting of Parliament. (Photos: GCIS, Flickr // GovernmentZA)

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