It’s one of the most important speeches that the President delivers in any year. With a prime time tv audience, it is a tremendous PR opportunity for the President to simultaneously lay out his agenda and reassure doubters – both local and foreign.

The SONA will be the last of the fifth administration, and as a result, it will largely be a report back on the administration’s progress and achievements over the past five years. It will also be an opportunity for the President to layout his priorities for the year ahead.


The speech is the result of collaboration among a large number of officials in the government – including policy advisors, researchers and speech writers – and outside advisors and thinkers. Traditionally, the Forum of Director-Generals, the ANC’s January 8th Statement, NEC Lekgotla and the Cabinet Lekgotla play a central role in shaping the speech. Meetings are also held with business leaders and labour, which influences the speech.

The target audience consists of different constituencies, which includes MPs, citizens, trade unions, business leaders, foreign investors, foreign governments and credit rating agencies. The media, pundits and stakeholder groups, will dissect every word to make sense of what it all means for particular sectors.

Some argue that too much attention and meaning is ascribed to the speech when it is quickly forgotten by the public. Others point out that it sets the tone for the year. Memorability is probably the best way to measure the success of this type of speech and this is seldom achieved (last year’s Thuma Mina speech is an exception). Either way, the reaction from the gallery, public (via social media, polling), political opponents and the markets will be known instantly and will be a talking point for days after.

Many of the ideas in the speech are long-term visions, while some proposals won’t be successful or will be implemented progressively. Also, the facts and figures trotted out are not always true and can lack context (Read Africa Check here and here).

President Ramaphosa’s maiden SONA speech lasted about 1hr20mins and had approximately 5800 words. Presidents Zuma, Mandela and Mbeki averaged around 5000, 6000 and 7000 words respectively in their speeches. President Ramaphosa is fluent in several languages so expect him to showcase that skill. Change, renewal and hope were some of the central themes in his speech last year.

What about the main talking points for this year? Expect more of the same as well as an emphasis on his plan to grow South Africa.

Let’s pretend for a moment you had to give a SONA, here is what I would advise you to do:

  • Make it short and to-the-point. Quality, substance and brevity trumps rambling.
  • Address the burning issues. Don’t tip-toe around issues that need confronting. Tackle them head-on.
  • Rehearse. This enables you to speak with conviction and certainty. It also minimises the risk of stumbles.
  • Tonality, cadence and energy are important.