What a difference a year makes. Almost to the day, on the 13th February of 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa presented his State of the Nation Address with absolutely no mention of COVID-19 at all. It was almost 3 weeks later that South Africa’s first COVID-19 patient was identified whilst the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic on the 11th of that month.
Before COVD-19 – and in last year’s SONA, the President had pointedly warned about the stark reality of a stagnating economy, mounting job losses and non-performing state-owned enterprises (SOE’s).
Given all that we know now, some 12 months later, the weaknesses that were inherent in the Pro-COVID-19 South Africa have now effectively been put on a damaging warp speed in the wrong direction for 365 days.
The backdrop for SONA 2021 is therefore one in which a battered economy is weaker, the job market even more constrained and fiscal conditions have tightened considerably. A year into COVID-19, most South Africans have felt illness and even loss alongside very uncertain economic conditions in which many have lost their job or have had to accept a change in their working conditions with possible downwards pressure on their disposable income.
So, for the President, whatever attempts at growing the economy scheduled for the last year, have pretty much been converted into crisis management of the two devastating pandemic waves that the country has endured. With the coffers bare thanks to the major expenditure on preparing for COVID-19 and a hiatus on major government spending projects, it’s a very different SONA.
To this, we should add a concerning continuation of corruption-related activity which cuts to the heart of the urgent need to restore a capable state and credibility and transparency in governance. Indeed, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) only last week uncovered a six- month plundering windfall that cost the state a whopping R13 billion.
The President has largely already provided a series of mini-SONA’s through the year as the waxing and waning lockdown rules necessitate a series of national televised addresses to deal with the urgent matters at hand. And, this week, he yet again has to summarise the previous year and present an outline of his expectation for the next 12 months.
Ultimately, this is a COVID-19 SONA. That’s the priority. And the biggest issue of all is the vaccine rollout-program that is not only a critical issue for the health of the nation but politically vital to the credibility of Ramaphosa the leader.
While the President has – after what was a messy few weeks on this topic – now provided a better timeline for the initial tranches of the vaccine, there is much more work to reassure the public of the efficiency of the delivery and to begin to physically put the jabs in arms.
Expect therefore to hear a significant overview of the vaccination programme with hopefully more detail on the numbers of vials procured with clearer guidelines. In all fairness though, it’s a tough one for the President. The virus variants make the effectiveness of the vaccine something of a moving target and this issue is an important one for the President to also address.
But of course, COVID-19 is not the only issue to be addressed in SONA.
And this is where it becomes even tougher for the President. Ironically, there is more politically cohesiveness within the ANC – and across South African society – on the need for the vaccine.
What there is much less agreement on is how to proceed on the remaining two crucial issues for the President – that being the ongoing inability to effectively put corruption to bed and the vexed issue of economic policy and fiscal constraints.
Perhaps, therefore, we could add these two factors – corruption and policy – to COVID-19 and anecdotally refer to a triple-pandemic for the county.
SONA 2021 has to address corruption head-on. In the midst of a serious undermining of the President’s authority, the litany of PPE-related malfeasance is embarrassing and of course, unethical at a time of severe humanitarian suffering. But, it’s not just this issue that buzzes around the President’s head like a pesky mosquito.
The Zondo Commission has now reached a critical stage following former President Jacob Zuma’s much publicised refusal to provide testimony. For a sitting President who continues to witness and preside over a broader administration that still cannot stamp out the corruption scourge, the challenge presented by Mr Zuma undermines the ability of Zondo to do his job. And it’s an essential job if we are to lift ourselves out of the corruption swamp we find ourselves in.
SONA, therefore, occurs at an uncomfortable time for President Ramaphosa. Unable to forcibly apply his own ‘step-down’ clause within the ANC, facing a rebellion from his own Secretary-General Ace Magashule and the spectre of Jacob Zuma, Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina having tea with EFF leader Julius Malema also undermines the President’s leadership.
Finally, the SONA also has to look forward and offer hope. Yes, convincing words about the vaccine will help as will meaningful reference to fighting corruption and the upholding of our constitution. Yet, the third pandemic – that of the ailing economy – deserves real emphasis.
Here too, the President remains locked into internal ANC conflicts on the role of the private sector versus the state in taking the country forward. The inability of the ANC to confront the severe limitations of the state’s role and to embrace the private sector as real partners continue to stymie growth. And, as fiscal pressures mount, the President and his party now have to make some stark choices of what projects will receive priority.
Indeed, a move to a basic income grant may well offer welcome relief but the hard choices of scaling back the public service will need to also be applied. It’s not good enough to call for a massive infrastructure spend to kickstart the economy – we also need regulatory reform in the energy and mining sectors alongside real incentives for both foreign and domestic investors. While the President may well leave much of the heavy-lifting on economic issues to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, he needs to lead from the front and mouth real reforms, not more platitudes.
This is not an easy SONA. It is perhaps, the most challenging yet in the post-1994 environment. Yes, COVID-19 has pushed us back on just about every economic measurement – and that was from a low starting base. It cannot anymore be business as usual, yet it also cannot just pay lip-service to reforms. There’s political risk to clawing our way back to growth, and if not taken, COVID-19 may not be the more serious pandemic we face.
Daniel Silke is a noted Political Economy Analyst and Keynote Speaker. He is the Director of the Political Futures Consultancy based in Cape Town. His website is www.danielsilkeglobal.com and follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke.