By Rapule Tabane
In his fifth state of the nation address (Sona) since taking over after Jacob Zuma was forced to resign in 2018, one got a sense that, behind the platitudes and political slogans he repeats at government and ANC events, the real Cyril Ramaphosa is slowly coming out of his shell, playing his true hand.
Being president of the country through a mandate of the ANC is not easy and does not allow for any individual character to shine above party policy. The party can be rigid in expecting its leaders to abide by its various makgotlas and conference resolutions. So, whatever state of the nation address a president might have in mind, they have to make it conform to the January 8 statement or to conference resolutions taken some five years before.
But, on Thursday night, I got the distinct sense that he was creating room for himself to stamp his own authority. When he voiced his government’s happiness with the fact that social grants were protecting so many millions from abject poverty, he immediately qualified it by warning that government did not have infinite resources, and, in the end, this route might be ruinous.
Ramaphosa said:Our social protection system is among the greatest achievements of the democratic government, reaching more than 18 million people every month. As much as it has had a substantial impact, we must recognise that we face extreme fiscal constraints. A fiscal crisis would hurt the poor worst of all through the deterioration of the basic services on which they rely. Mindful of the proven benefits of the grant, we will extend the R350 SRD [social relief of distress] grant for one further year, to the end of March 2023.
“During this time, we will engage in broad consultations and detailed technical work to identify the best options to replace this grant. Any future support must pass the test of affordability, and must not come at the expense of basic services or at the risk of unsustainable spending.”
So there it is. It is no wonder then that there was no announcement of a basic income grant. A recent leak from a document, that his presidential advisory council had warned against such a grant, might not have been accidental after all. That message needed to come out.
He was eyeing the basic income grant lobbyists when he warned that we face “extreme fiscal constraints”. Publicly he gives a cautious nod to the basic income grant, but you have to wonder whether he thinks it financially prudent. Probably not.
And, with all the appointments of Mavuso Msimang to advise on visa review policy, David Mminele on climate change and Sipho Nkosi on cutting red tape, the obvious question arises: Is that not a vote of no confidence in his own ministers and departments? Because through the appointments, he is taking personal control of these projects and signalling them as priorities that he wants to monitor daily and see progress on.
Another huge frustration for the president is the weak security cluster that continues to embarrass him. He has promised to announce leadership changes in a number of security agencies to strengthen our security structure. He has already taken the intelligence under his wing, but it is the flailing SA Police Service that he needs to tackle properly, and we will wait to see how far reaching the changes he will make go. Can he go as far as bringing a trusted aide from outside the police to take charge? It would not surprise me one bit, as I get the sense that he wants results or nothing, and will stop at nothing to implement what he believes will be effective measures.
While busy with all of this, Ramaphosa is also trying to appeal to hearts and get South Africans to recognise the difficulties we face, but to share his optimism and enthusiasm about returning the country to functionality. He opened his speech by recognising that the fire in the National Assembly was, for many, symbolic of the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising unemployment and deepening poverty.
“It spoke to the devastation of a pandemic that, over the past two years, has taken the lives of tens of thousands of South Africans, put 2 million people out of work and brought misery to families. The fire in Parliament reminded us of the destruction, violence and looting that we witnessed in parts of the country in July last year, of the more than 300 lives lost and many more livelihoods ruined.”
He then implored the nation to remember the words of former president Thabo Mbeki, who said:Trying times need courage and resilience. Our strength as a people is not tested during the best of times.
Rapule Tabane is a senior journalist with City Press