President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his first state of the nation address following the 2019 general elections. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his first state of the nation address following the 2019 general elections. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

If President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address (Sona) on Thursday was one of dreams, the EFF was having none of it.

"We are not paying you to dream," party spokesperson and MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi shouted across the National Assembly chamber in exasperation, as Ramaphosa began to wind up his address.

Ramaphosa was envisioning a new, smart city for SA — the first such city to be built in the country. When EFF MPs loudly demanded to know "when and where", he paused, then said: "I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this project."

It is a lofty dream: an SA with smart cities founded on the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, in which bullet trains pass through Joburg on their way to Musina in Limpopo.

LISTEN | President Ramaphosa has a dream

But it is a dream that — for the moment — remains just that; it is devoid of reality. As DA hecklers pointed out, SA can’t even get its current trains to run properly.

Dreams and hope are, of course, not things to make light of. But there are more critical issues SA should be focusing on — the question of Eskom’s sustainability, for example. An implosion of the power utility could prove fatal to an already struggling economy.

But Ramaphosa’s third Sona wasn’t just about dreams.

He also spoke of the importance of implementation — and of making choices that would not please everyone.

"In an economy that is not growing, at a time when public finances are limited, we will not be able to do everything at one time," he said.

But he was scant on detail about these hard decisions.

His administration’s seven priorities will be economic transformation and job creation; education, skills and health; consolidating the social wage through reliable and quality basic services; spatial integration, human settlements and local government; social cohesion and safe communities; a capable, ethical and developmental state; and a better Africa and world. The National Development Plan is at the centre of these efforts.

The challenges facing Ramaphosa are not small. They are a toxic combination that could trip him up

Ramaphosa’s first two Sonas were surrounded by "Ramaphoria", following his ascent to the presidency after the recall of former president Jacob Zuma. But reality seemed to have set in by this address — Ramaphosa’s first Sona since he and the ANC were given a fresh mandate by voters in the May election.

One could argue that hopes and dreams are all Ramaphosa has left to sell. But there are practical steps that need to be taken to fix SA.

That road is not smooth, and various political potholes await Ramaphosa.

Top of mind are Eskom and the state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

In his address, Ramaphosa emphasised how load-shedding and uncertainty around electricity supply and Eskom itself had contributed to a lacklustre first quarter in which the economy contracted by 3.2%.

"The lesson is clear: for growth, we need a reliable and sustainable supply of electricity," Ramaphosa said.

But the country is still waiting for a clear political decision about the future of the utility. The closest Ramaphosa came to touching on Eskom’s unbundling — splitting the utility into generation, transmission and distribution units — was his announcement that the government will soon appoint a chief restructuring officer.

He also said an urgent special appropriation bill will be tabled to allocate a significant portion of the promised R230bn in fiscal support Eskom will receive from the government.

Something clearly needs to be done at Eskom, but the bankrupt utility is a political hot potato. And Ramaphosa has already promised that no jobs will be shed at the bloated SOE, while privatisation of the utility is apparently also not an option.

Trade union federation Cosatu, the first ANC-aligned structure to endorse Ramaphosa in his bid for the ANC presidency, says the federation and its associates remain concerned about possible retrenchments at Eskom and other SOEs.

Picture: 123RF/Yuliya Rosher
Picture: 123RF/Yuliya Rosher

"This is something that Cosatu will fight at all costs," the federation says. "We demand that government explain what the restructuring of Eskom and the other SOEs will entail."

It’s important for Ramaphosa to keep allies like Cosatu close, as he navigates the factional battles of the ANC. The most prominent political danger lies in the faction aligned to party secretary-general Ace Magashule.

Though Magashule has publicly emphasised that the party’s top officials speak with one voice and work together, he is also perceived to be undermining the president’s project to reform the state and unite the party.

Two recent events stand out: the chaos surrounding the mandate of the Reserve Bank, and the ANC’s nominations for the chairs of parliament’s portfolio committees.

In the case of the Reserve Bank, Magashule announced that the ANC national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla had resolved to expand the Bank’s mandate to include employment and growth, and to direct government to explore quantitative easing as a means to address intergovernmental debts and make funds available for development.

His announcement sent the rand into a tailspin. It also drew ANC economic transformation chair Enoch Godongwana and finance minister Tito Mboweni into the fray to defend the Bank’s mandate and independence. A week later, Ramaphosa reiterated their position in a statement he delivered as ANC president on behalf of the party’s top six officials — including Magashule.

While Godongwana and Mboweni’s defence showed Magashule’s faction has a counterweight within the ANC, Ramaphosa’s response was a stamp of authority. By releasing the statement in his own name, Ramaphosa drew on the power vested in him as party leader by the ANC constitution: the political head of the party can make pronouncements on behalf of the party’s NEC to outline and explain any of the party’s policies or attitudes. His is the final voice.

Ramaphosa also used the separation of party and state to assert his authority in the Reserve Bank question — this time as state president. Following the president’s address, ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile said the party was fully behind Ramaphosa on the matter.

Then there are the portfolio committee chairs. Magashule’s original list of nominations has been described to the FM as a disaster, requiring damage control. The party’s announcement of candidates was postponed to allow for more consultation with its alliance partners, most notably Cosatu and the SACP.

The final nominations still included Zuma-era ministers such as Faith Muthambi and Mosebenzi Zwane, but one can deduce from a Sunday Times report, which said Magashule had to be stopped from announcing the portfolio chairs the week before Sona, that the picture could have been a lot darker.

The party’s need to consult its partners in this instance suggests that, in addition to support from within party structures, Ramaphosa has some measure of countervailing support against Magashule’s faction from outside the ANC.

What it means

The president’s lofty dreams for SA will be severely tested as reality bites in the faction-riven ANC

Whether this will hold — and be enough to sound the alarm and change the trajectory of possibly deleterious decisions — will have to be seen. Factionalism in the ANC is a tangible threat to Ramaphosa’s presidency, and should not be taken lightly.

Another clear threat to Ramaphosa is that posed by public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Mkhwebane is investigating Ramaphosa in relation to a R500,000 donation from facilities management company Bosasa, which is alleged to have bribed key players in return for state contracts.

The public protector herself has been found wanting in two high court judgments, and the DA has asked that a process to remove her from office be instituted. This has been referred to the justice & correctional services portfolio committee, which has not yet met since the new administration took the reins. It creates a conundrum for the governing party: ANC support of a motion to remove the public protector could cynically be interpreted as the party protecting Ramaphosa rather than taking a stand on Mkhwebane’s competence and fitness to hold office.

The ANC, after all, did not support the DA’s original motion to have her removed from office, based on a judgment that found — in the best-case scenario — she just does not understand her job.

Taken together, the challenges facing Ramaphosa are not small. They are a toxic combination that could trip him up.

Success is something SA clings to in hope. The country surely cannot afford to have Ramaphosa’s dream become a nightmare. That could culminate in International Monetary Fund rescue.