Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

State of the nation addresses vary from the inspirational to the aspirational, and perhaps the best of them are both. While it was not such an address there is no better example of an inspirational speech than Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, delivered while he was deputy president. It was rich in poetry and will long be remembered — but essentially it achieved very little.

Few speeches the president will give will be more important. They outline what has been achieved in the year past and what is envisaged for the year ahead. In a country such as SA, with so many deficits, mapping out the road to be followed is critical for any sitting president.

In 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa, in the delayed address made in June (after the May election), promised a great deal in terms of action on the future of Eskom and other state-owned enterprises, but he also expressed what many described as pie in the sky dreams. He talked of creating a brand new smart city in SA and a high-speed bullet train between Johannesburg and Durban. These dreams have largely not been mentioned again.

But, more importantly, the interventions on Eskom and basic education have borne little fruit. If one is brutally honest, Eskom is worse off now than it was a year ago.

These are just some of the reasons that Thursday’s address is one of the most important speeches Ramaphosa will ever deliver. If his enemies have their way it will be the last he ever gives.

Ramaphosa has already given himself a bite of the inspirational pie this week. On Tuesday he addressed a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s first speech as a free man in 1990 from the balcony of the Cape Town city hall.

As South Africa prepares itself for Cyril Ramaphosa's state of the nation address (Sona), we take a look at South Africa's four prominent presidents and what they achieved. Through statistics, we compare each democratically elected president's promises to the subsequent realities.

While Ramaphosa’s use of the selfsame balcony can be seen as hubris as well as an act of desperation (to get some mileage from a truly momentous occasion 30 years ago), it was, in truth, a rather lacklustre affair that relied on Mandela’s awesome reputation for its weight.

The 2019 speech correctly noted that Eskom and other major issues needed urgent attention, but Ramaphosa was criticised for failing to say how and when things would be done. With the political space in which to act narrowing all the time, more of the same this time around could spell disaster for the president. He has been on the back foot in recent weeks, insisting, for instance, in the face of trade union hostility, that a business rescue for SAA could be successful without the cutting of routes and jobs when a moment’s reflection must show that this is impossible. So too with Eskom. The Zuma decade was very good at creating jobs for family, friends and the politically connected, but they were jobs that delivered nothing but a bloated salary burden for both SAA and Eskom.

On Thursday Ramaphosa must finally tell the nation what is going to happen and when. Otherwise he will be demonstrating that he and the unions simply do not get the seriousness of the situation. It is not as if he and the government and the unions have not been told what’s what. An army of commentators and analysts have been warning for some time that it is perhaps already too late. Yet the government still pussyfoots around the key issues facing the country.

On balance there is no space tonight for inspirational thoughts on a smart city or the fourth industrial revolution. There is only a very real need for really tough action and not the promise of it. Concrete action trumps inspiration every time. Mr President, it really is now or never.