President Cyril Ramaphosa during Thursday night's state of the nation address in Parliament. Pi​cture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
President Cyril Ramaphosa during Thursday night's state of the nation address in Parliament. Pi​cture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

President Cyril Ramaphosa kept his feet firmly on the ground in his 2020 state of the nation address (Sona), ditching last year’s smart cities and bullet trains and focusing on the “stark reality” facing the country.  

He declared that his government would use 2020 to “focus on the fundamentals”, centring his address on Thursday on inclusive economic growth by primarily outlining ways to address the energy crisis. 

It was a welcome shift from the lofty ideals which characterised his 2019 Sona after the election, which was largely criticised as out of touch.  

It was a night of winners and losers, after the EFF disrupted Ramaphosa’s address, as expected, in a bid to eject former president FW de Klerk and then to call for the axing of public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan. The biggest losers were South Africans who had to wait an hour and a half to hear Ramaphosa’s plan to fix a moribund economy characterised by near 40% unemployment. The biggest winner was not the EFF but National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise, who denied the party the spectacle of its members being physically removed from parliament, a spectacle they clearly sought.

Ramaphosa was clear and concise, realistic about the challenges facing the country and inclusive in his approach to resolving them, though it was little that the nation has not heard before.  

“Our economy has not grown at any meaningful rate for over a decade. Even as jobs are being created, the rate of unemployment is deepening. The recovery of our economy has stalled as persistent energy shortages have disrupted businesses and people’s lives. Several state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are in distress, and our public finances are under severe pressure. It is you, the people of SA, who carry this burden, confronted by rising living costs, unable to escape poverty, unable to realise your potential,” he said.

His focus was largely on unlocking economic growth, including energy interventions and the introduction of a sovereign wealth fund — which Ramaphosa did not elaborate much on.

The introduction of a sovereign wealth fund was agreed upon at the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017, though it had been discussed at previous conferences. It was discussed at the party’s 2019 January lekgotla, where it was agreed that the “technical work” to establish such a fund would get under way. The fund would be established to “invest in strategic sectors of the economy and the long-term social and environmental needs of the country”, the 2019 lekgotla resolutions read. The resolution further said the fund would be based on the Norwegian model.

He committed to unblock the regulatory obstacles to generate energy outside of Eskom, including a ministerial determination to enable additional grid capacity from renewable energy, natural gas, hydropower, battery storage and coal. Emergency power would be procured from projects able to deliver and feed into the grid within three to 12 months from approval. The government would also open bid window 5 of the renewable energy independent power producer procurement and work with producers to conclude window 4 projects, and it would negotiate supplementary power purchases to acquire additional capacity from existing wind and solar plants. Critically, it would put in place measures to enable municipalities in a sound financial position to procure power from independent power producers.

Ramaphosa’s address was marred by disruptions from the EFF, whose MPs first called on Modise to remove De Klerk and then demanded that Gordhan be sacked.

The disruption culminated in a delay of the Sona of over 90 minutes. The EFF disruption was no surprise — the party had also issued statements warning that police had been deployed unlawfully to parliament and had posted pictures of its MPs doing push-ups in preparation for their confrontation with parliamentary security.

It was not to be as Modise, despite provocation, did not call in security services but rather suspended the sitting. On its resumption, the EFF gave up and left the house without being forcefully removed, escorted out or asked to do so.

Modise’s handling of the matter was in stark contrast to that of her predecessor, Baleka Mbete, who had security physically remove EFF MPs when they disrupted former president Jacob Zuma’s speeches. 

Modise was criticised by MPs for her approach, but, politically and legally, it may have saved parliament from further embarrassing litigation. Modise also ordered — after prompting from all parties in the house — that the rules for a joint sitting should be reworked to strengthen the speaker’s hand in dealing with disruptions. Modise said she would also look at punishing errant MPs by hitting them where it hurts most — in their pockets. She would look into how their salaries could be docked for preventing the house from getting on with its business. The matter was also referred to the powers and privileges committee, which would be responsible for potentially disciplining EFF MPs.

The red berets may have to update their strategy, as it is clear that parliament under Modise’s watch is a vastly different beast to the one before.

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