President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Cyril Ramaphosa’s speechwriters should be given an A for effort. If the president was looking for an address that would paint a picture of his office as a hive of activity, consequence and determination, then his comms staff delivered in spades this week.

The work being done in the presidency is about action, not talk,” Ramaphosa told parliament during the budget vote address for the presidency on Wednesday. “It is about rolling up our sleeves and getting things done.”

In an hour-long paean to his office, Ramaphosa told us of the miracles that have been wrought, and the wonders that still await us.

The Gospel according to Cyril is no doubt impressive, and compelling. But as is so often the case when he speaks, I found myself imagining what it would be like to live in a county that even halfway approximated the one he was speaking of.

For starters, there was an awful lot of talk about “an ethical, capable and developmental state”.

Now, given the abyss of ethics and capacity, not to mention development, it might have been more accurate to speak simply of a state on the brink of failure.

But let’s be charitable. After all, we could always blame all of that – as Ramaphosa did – on “a prolonged period in which state capacity was severely weakened and several state institutions strayed from their mandates”.

A capable state, we were told, “is well-run and well-managed, with clear lines of responsibility and accountability.” Actions are “effectively aligned with intentions”; programmes are “synchronised”; resources are used “to their best effect”; and policymaking is “coherent and evidence-based”.

Not, in other words, the state as we know it in SA.   

Some slick PR

So what has the presidency been up to? Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

Ramaphosa has signed individual performance agreements with cabinet ministers, and these are available online. Only, they were signed in October and November – two years after he first mooted the idea. And there’s still no sign of the cabinet lifestyle audits that were promised at the same time.

Cyril the ditherer strikes again.

The presidency is also working towards building a public service that is “ethical, experienced, skilled and selfless”. Given that 6,140 of these loyal public servants fraudulently claimed more than R41m from the temporary employer/employee relief scheme (Ters) last year, I’d say there’s a way to go.

Relatedly, the resources in a capable state are used “for the benefit of people and not self-enrichment”. It’s a pity Ramaphosa couldn’t be in two rooms at the same time on Wednesday. He may have heard Special Investigations Unit head Andy Mothibi tell parliament’s standing committee on public accounts how his unit has prioritised investigations into R14.3bn in alleged Covid-related procurement corruption – a “first” of this scale of graft.

Maybe, instead, we should celebrate the small wins ​ like the “evidence-based policymaking” which Ramaphosa claims was evident in SA’s response to Covid.

Presumably he was referring here to the decision to close the beaches, but simultaneously ramp up the numbers at religious gatherings? Perhaps the decision to fill taxis to capacity? Or the permissibility of “cropped bottoms”, if they’re worn with winter shoes?

Then there’s our vaccination programme: more than 1-million people have now received their first dose of the vaccine. Add in the 500,000-odd health-care workers who are fully vaccinated, and SA is sitting on a princely 2.6% of the population who’ve received a vaccine (0.8% fully vaccinated). As a point of reference, Our World in Data puts Brazil’s first-dose vaccination rate at 21.6%, India at 12.3% and Russia at 11.45%. But go, SA, go!

While we’re celebrating, let’s not forget SA’s “low-carbon economic transition”. (We’ll pretend minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantashe didn’t tell parliament in his budget vote speech that “we are going to be a major player in gas and oil”. And don’t mention the stultifying pace of the renewable energy power procurement programme.) 

On the bright side, at least we’ve settled on 11 bidders for the emergency power procurement programme (let’s hear it for the 20-year Karpowership deal).

And employment? Well, the Presidential Employment Stimulus has created 700,000 “opportunities”, we’re told. 

But, lest any of the 7.2-million unemployed South Africans (now 32.6% of the population on the narrow definition) get too excited, that’s not 700,000 jobs. It’s actually 422,000 jobs. The remaining “opportunities” are 110,000 “awards for livelihood support” and 162,000 “awards in process” – in other words, agricultural production input vouchers, awards to the creative sector, and income support for the early childhood development sector.

The elephant in the room

It’s on the issue of corruption, however, that Ramaphosa was most infuriating.

On the one hand, he told us how his administration has “taken decisive measures to end state capture and fight corruption”, and that it has “acted swiftly to address allegations of corruption in Covid-related procurement”.

In another breath, however, he related how “disheartening it is to read on a daily basis about corruption allegations”.

And that, right there, is the problem. 

For all that Ramaphosa blames Jacob Zuma and the “nine lost years” for the state of the country today – handily glossing over the fact that he was deputy president of SA for much of that time – there’s no escaping the fact that rampant corruption continues on his watch.

R41m siphoned from Ters beneficiaries and R14.3bn in alleged procurement corruption – that can’t be handed off as a Zuma failing. And did I hear someone say, “Digital Vibes”?

De Villiers is the features editor of the FM

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