Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SOWETAN
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SOWETAN

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address on Thursday was appropriately sombre.

For the first time in the two years that he has been president, Ramaphosa frankly acknowledged the deep hole in which SA is stuck, with a stagnant economy, rising unemployment and increasing hardship nationwide. It was a long overdue acknowledgment and is an essential ingredient if a sense of urgency is to be instilled in his pedestrian government.

It is true, as he went on to say, that the government alone cannot solve all SA’s problems. Even if it embarked on an enormous spending programme, the government would be unable to guarantee employment to the millions who are out of work.

But the fact is that the government, more than any other actor in society, has the power to change the trajectory. It has political power, it has economic power, it has access to huge financial resources and it has enormous regulatory power. While it has a responsibility to protect its citizens and to provide services for their welfare and development, it also has the responsibility to manage the economy.

Over the last two years, Ramaphosa’s government has not inspired confidence that it is competent to do that.

Whatever the reasoning behind it, the problem is clear: there is no urgency to move ahead decisively with implementation

There were some action plans, most notably about a stable and reliable energy supply. The measures announced will, if implemented by reluctant mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, contribute to easing the energy constraints for some, especially those entities and business that intend to generate their own electricity.

Ramaphosa promised that a new round of renewable energy would be procured from independent power producers, which is the quickest and most cost-effective way of bringing more energy onto the grid.

His statements were almost immediately tempered by Mantashe who told reporters after the speech that he was not “fundamentalist” about opening a new bid window for private procurement and refused to commit to a time frame for when what Ramaphosa had promised moments before would be carried out. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the problem is clear: there is no urgency to move ahead decisively with implementation.

Most of Ramaphosa’s action plans announced a year ago have received the same treatment from his ministers. In 2019, he said Eskom was to be split into three entities immediately. Twelve months later, nothing has changed. Eskom remains a monolith with the same set of problems, although now with a new CEO.

The infrastructure fund, announced 18 months ago as the solution to the stagnant economy, is yet to get off the ground, despite the idea behind it being that the government’s existing infrastructure spend would be channelled in this direction. It does not require a complicated process of establishment. In his speech, Ramaphosa promised that a list of shovel-ready project exists. These should have been started months ago.

Social compacting

The structural economic reforms, referred to for the past two years by Ramaphosa and reiterated again in the economic growth paper released by the finance minister in 2019, are mostly still in a conceptual stage.

Ramaphosa, as we know, is an evangelical devotee of social compacting. The speech puts great emphasis on this and the work he believes has been done, which will set SA on a new path. It is certainly true that SA is a country in which no one social actor, even a popularly elected government, can unilaterally drive a programme without the buy-in of other social partners.

But despite this reality, it is only the government that has the wherewithal to govern, and SA needs it do that. While there have been compacting attempts, government leadership has been lacking.

Some of Ramaphosa’s ministers are fond of arguing that they should not be rushed into action as they have been in power for only nine months. This is not true. The ANC has been in government for 26 years. It needs to lead now, with urgency.