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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

Before this year’s state of the nation address, the presidency released a nice little booklet outlining progress on last year’s address.

It’s a useful tool and all the graphics and ticked boxes might help fend off accusations that none of the president’s many promises are implemented from one year to the next. It turns out that a fair few of a long laundry list of promises have in fact been ticked off, which is laudable.

Yet the booklet itself is in the end just an illustration of the depth of the problem with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government. In last year’s address, it reminds us (and quite possibly in the previous year’s too), he promised bold and decisive action to address SA’s urgent challenges. Instead, what we have is a list of incremental and often timid moves that still fail to reflect any real sense of urgency.

What’s more, with a few exceptions — of which the spectrum auction is the most notable — many of the boxes that have been ticked off are regulatory changes, policy papers or frameworks. They may be necessary conditions for action. But they are not actions in themselves and unless someone can put a rocket under some of the officials and regulators in charge, they won’t make any difference.

That applies as much to the liberalising of licensing rules on electricity generation as it does to the supposed third-party participation in freight rail. It applies as much to the mining exploration strategy as it does to the comprehensive review of the work visa system.

Yes, Ramaphosa has ticked off those year-ago items on his list. But the cumbersome bureaucracies and obstructive officialdom still means we are not getting new independent generators on to the grid at close to the speed we need, the railways if anything are getting worse, there is still no sign of life in mining exploration, and importing the experts SA urgently needs is as fraught as before.

Perhaps most depressing of all is that regarding the booklet’s concluding section on “making government work”, all that is on offer by way of progress is a policy paper (on state-owned enterprises) and a framework (on the public service).

We could go on but the bottom line is that amid an unprecedented power crisis, with economic growth set to slow to a standstill for the foreseeable future and jobs and livelihoods being lost, incremental progress on a laundry list of items is hardly what SA’s angry citizenry was hoping for.

So what should we hope when Ramaphosa stands up to present his state of the nation address on Thursday ?

Honesty about the real state of the nation would be good, and a frank assessment from him of why he has so signally failed to arrest the slide in SA’s economic prospects and its governance of the past year. An understanding of what this has meant, and continues to mean, for the lives of South Africans would be good too. And, of course, crucially, what he plans to do about it, not by next year but now.

We do not need yet another long to-do list but rather a credible commitment from Ramaphosa to fixing his own government with urgency. That means putting people in place who support his reform project and will take urgent action to sort out the power crisis, not to mention the crises in transport, water, skills and communications, and the endemic crime and corruption that are eroding SA’s economy and its institutions.

The president has a serious credibility problem more than five years into a term of office that began with far-reaching promises of reform. He needs to keep it simple. He needs to keep it honest. And he needs to show with his cabinet appointments that he means business.

We will almost certainly hear that it is not going to be business as usual and that urgency is on its way. Mention will be made of SA’s “triple challenges” of unemployment, poverty and inequality and the government’s resolve to tackle these. More undertakings will be made to implement undertakings made last time around. But this is not the time for more platitudes, or more promises. Something crisp and credible please, Mr President.

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