What will Ramaphosa say about the state of the nation?

This is the South African president’s chance to spell out his vision beyond ‘Thuma mina!’

When President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his first State of the Nation Address on 7 February, he will face a country weary of corruption and seemingly endless allegations of state capture. Will Ramaphosa’s deeply divided African National Congress (ANC) be able to fulfil the promise of last year when he exhorted us to seek the better angels of our nature in the rallying cry ‘Thuma mina!’?

This is also an election year, so this session of Parliament is a short one. Members of parliament (MPs) will start campaigning as early as 29 March. The president will no doubt make the usual promises. The ANC manifesto covers well-worn territory – claiming it will ensure job creation, better health care and education and deal decisively with crime, among other things. It also promises to end state capture.

Ramaphosa’s own position is precarious as he attempts to lead a clean-up of government within a divided ruling party. Yet the president can come to Parliament claiming some gains in this regard.

In the past year there’s been a cabinet reshuffle, albeit imperfect, which saw the departure of deeply problematic ministers. These include Lynne Brown, Des van Rooyen, David Mahlobo and Faith Muthambi.

Rather than focusing on the ANC, the president must speak to South Africans as citizens

The country has also seen the departure of Siyabonga Gama at Transnet, Anoj Singh at Eskom, Berning Ntlemeza at the Hawks, Dudu Myeni at South African Airways and Lucky Montana at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. And of course Shaun Abrahams as the National Director of Public Prosecutions. There is also a string of investigations into wrongdoing at the South African Revenue Service, the Public Investment Corporation and the National Prosecuting Authority.

The question is whether any prosecutions will happen as a result of what is being revealed. The new prosecutions head, Shamila Batohi, will have her work cut out for her – but hers is a good appointment and Ramaphosa can be pleased with the outcome of that process.

On the legislative front, Parliament will focus on passing a Constitutional Amendment Bill dealing with land expropriation without compensation. The National Assembly established an ad hoc committee to initiate and introduce a constitutional amendment and report back to the House by 31 March 2019.

This is a tight deadline and one wonders whether it will be met, or whether ANC MPs might seek to kick the contentious land issue into touch. Given that polling data indicates that land is low on the agenda of most South Africans, the ANC manifesto itself seems to relegate the matter. Ramaphosa will need to nuance the land issue and deal with the populism that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for instance have championed around it.

Ramaphosa’s position is precarious as he tries to clean up government within a divided ruling party

The EFF for its part has threatened to disrupt Ramaphosa’s address if he doesn’t provide a full explanation regarding the R500 000 received from Bosasa, via his son Andile, for his campaign to lead the ANC. The controversial facilities management company is currently under scrutiny at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.

The EFF’s currency is disruption far more than it is an interest in governance. During the Jacob Zuma years this took hold with their repeated cries of, ‘Pay back the money!’ The EFF will probably find that it resonates somewhat differently in Ramaphosa’s case. The president has been proactive in himself referring the matter to the Public Protector. He will have to show this decisiveness on corruption, especially in dealing with findings from the myriad ongoing commissions of inquiry.

Related to this, ordinary crime is soaring and all surveys indicate that this is a key concern for South Africans. Ramaphosa will need to go beyond the platitudes when it comes to fighting crime.

There’s nothing slow about any political year in South Africa. Ramaphosa’s address is an opportunity to clarify his vision for the country, especially on the economy and job creation. With a 52% youth unemployment rate and burgeoning inequality, the economic vision must be one of inclusive, sustainable growth.

President Ramaphosa will need to go beyond the platitudes when it comes to fighting crime

How this is achieved will require novel thinking about youth jobs programmes, investing in education, cleaning up corruption in the state, and creating effective partnerships across government, business and labour.

State-owned enterprises are key to a sustainable economy. Given that most are in disarray, Ramaphosa needs to spell out how he will deal with corruption, and get them back on track. Eskom is a crucial cog in the country’s economic wheel. South Africans need to know how Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan will deal with the challenges these state-owned enterprises face.

There is much to be done. The country can’t afford divisive politics, and there are those in the ANC who are no doubt coursing Ramaphosa’s downfall. Rather than focusing on his party, the president’s job next week will be to speak to South Africans as citizens and spell out his vision beyond ‘Thuma mina!’

Judith February, Senior Research Associate, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Related content