Parliament. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Parliament. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

In fairness to President Cyril Ramaphosa, any assessment of progress made, or not, since the last time he delivered a state of the nation address has to acknowledge that there will not have been much time between the 25th and the 26th addresses.

The last one, delivered in February, came three months, almost to the day, before the country was due to hold national elections on May 8. With that out of the way, the president will be back in parliament on Thursday, outlining the agenda of his administration. 

After the February address, citizens, analysts and importantly credit ratings agencies were already resigned to a period of political paralysis until May when no big policy initiatives would get off the ground.

What is required is policy interventions that convince business that SA is a good place to invest money and generate returns.

Whether this in itself was good is debatable because it meant just when tough action was needed to get our economy on track, we accepted that there would be no meaningful progress on the crisis at Eskom and other state-owned enterprises, and that government was not going to be unveiling anything remotely resembling a plan on how to deal with our pending fiscal disaster.

In the lead-up to the May elections, Ramaphosa had what one can call a free ride. 

Yes, in the period before the February speech, much progress had been made on a number of issues, most importantly steps to clean up the National Prosecuting Authority, the SA Revenue Service, as well as intelligence and police services.

Ramaphosa might argue he has delivered on the reconfiguration of the state, but some might disagree, pointing out that when one takes into account the number of deputy ministers the executive hardly shrank.

As happy as people are to see some of Jacob Zuma’s most notorious loyalists gone, there is still a suspicion cabinet posts were handed over on the basis of internal ANC power dynamics rather than the urgency to deliver services and growth-enhancing reforms.

Even Ramaphosa would admit that on the big economic steps, hardly anything has been delivered. Some of the ministers in those key positions, notably telecommunications and home affairs among others, have given very little indication so far to be confident.

It will surprise nobody if in 12 months’ time we are still bemoaning the lack of spectrum, or an immigration policy that seems mainly to keep tourists and skilled workers out instead of encouraging them to come here.

On this note, we hope Ramaphosa will tackle the tendency for ministers to embark on fanciful but harmful legislative crusades. The so-called Airbnb bill in discussion is one case in point and threatens to be as damaging as the visa regulations on travelling with young people, which were implemented haphazardly because the enforcers at the border do not understand them.

Earlier in 2019, markets were eager to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt, so much so that SA had one of the best-performing currencies in emerging markets in the week of the elections.

Ramaphosa can blame it all on Ace Magashule if he likes, but sentiment has since turned.

While the rand has gained the past few days, benefiting from an improved appetite for emerging-market assets as global central banks turn more dovish, it is still the worst performer among its emerging-market peers since May 10, the last trading day before the results of the May 8 poll were announced, with a drop of about 3%.

That is hardly a surprise since the economic data has been rather dismal, with GDP falling in the first quarter by more than 3%. Unemployment is heading up the wrong direction towards 40% despite the much vaunted “success” of Ramaphosa’s jobs summit in 2018.

The reality is that no amount of government intervention — or free money from the SA Reserve Bank — will solve the country’s job crisis.

What is required is policy interventions that convince business that SA is a good place to invest money and generate returns.

Ramaphosa will most likely deliver another good speech on Thursday. The challenge is to deliver action, and show that he’s willing to take the tough decisions and actions, even if it means Magashule and his allies will be sharpening their knives