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Mbhazima Shilowa | SONA: New dawn? More like dusk is setting

Do I believe that the president is capable of rising to the challenge? It is not for me to say. He went to the people asking them to back him and promising to turn the ship around in return, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.

Today the president will deliver his second State of the Nation Address following the general elections held in May last year.

In a sense this is his real State of the Nation Address.

During the first one he outlined a five to 10 year plan in general terms whereas now he’s expected to back it up with a programme of action, plans and resources to make it a reality.

To say all eyes are on him with the country pregnant with expectations will be an understatement.

In a sense, citizens connect with the SONA based on their own reality.

There is general agreement in the country that we face high unemployment, low to non-existent economic growth, increasing poverty especially among the poor, women, youth and rural people.

The ongoing load shedding will exacerbate the situation.

There is a high crime rate, especially the killing of women and children with few arrests and low conviction rates.

Corruption, maladministration and abuse of state resources continue unabated with no high ranking politician or corporate executives brought to book.

Our state owned enterprises are on the brink of collapse, in part due to state capture, with no visible plan to reinvigorate them and incompetence by some of the deployed cadres and boards.

The quality of health, education, social and economic infrastructure leaves much to be desired.

Public transport, and road infrastructure especially in rural provinces, water and sanitation are in a state of disrepair.

Trains, cables and rail tracks are vandalised with impunity.

How does one explain that no real culprits except two teenagers have been arrested for the torching of trains in Cape Town and elsewhere in the country?

Apart from success in concealing many dubious aspects of their activities, there is not much to show for the work of police and intelligence.

They are an example of what a hollowed out security system looks like. 

The question is: does the president share this state of the nation and if he does what plans he has in place to change the situation for the better?

Or does he live in a parallel universe where the state of the nation is different to the one that is the citizens’ daily lived experience?

One hopes he is with us in the challenges facing the country and has solutions to fix them. 

In the run up to the last elections the ANC and the president travelled the length and breadth of the country saying to its citizens we know your situation, we know what to do to sort it out.

They said the same to the business community most of whom had resigned themselves to more of the same following the Zuma years – that we have a plan working with you to help grow the economy, create sustainable jobs, assist and nurture small business and to pay them on time to ensure their sustainability.

To a restless nation looking for quick wins there is a feeling the NPA is moving very slowly and that the “rule by commissions” is not bearing any fruits and that the bad guys are getting away with murder. 

And yet months after the elections of a new administration, one that held so much hope and promise because of the so-called wasted Zuma years, we have very little to show that the new dawn has arrived.

It’s more like dusk is setting.

Not that anyone other than demagogues expected changes overnight.

It takes years to rebuild a country and its institutions especially the law enforcement agencies once they have been destroyed.

What was expected were signposts that there is indeed a new beginning beyond rhetorical statements of implementation of radical economic policies. 

It is time President Cyril Ramaphosa focused less on the spectacle of palace coups and internal party politics and more on the challenges that the country faces.

The unfortunate part is that when the country and the economy collapses we are all impacted regardless of political party or social standing.

It is cold comfort that the elite will be less impacted. 

The question therefore is not what to expect from the SONA but what the president can do to reverse the malaise.

Forget about the noise from the opposition parties.

They’re as much at sea as the ruling party.

It is one thing to point out the mistakes but another to put forward a comprehensive plan to turn the ship around.

Frankly speaking, there is none or it would have been presented during the general elections.

Which is why the EFF is reverting to type: we will disrupt the SONA unless the president dismisses Pravin Gordhan – something they know he will not do. 

“Phakama Ramaphosa” was the song of the president’s campaigners in the run up to the ANC’s Nasrec conference.

Phakama si ku bone (rise up and be seen) Ramaphosa is the country’s current mantra.

Will the captain steer the ship or will he be hunkering in the bunker with the crew while the ship moves around aimlessly at sea only for him to emerge to reassure the passengers that all is well?

I hope for our sake that he will hold the steering wheel, stop looking over his shoulder to see if someone else is trying to take the wheel from him and steer the ship out of the stormy seas into calmer waters. 

To do so will require a concrete plan to grow the economy over a 10 to 15 year period – an economy that will create and preserve jobs to whatever extent possible and to create new jobs in new economic sectors beyond mining and manufacturing, most of which belong in the past century.

He needs to accept that while there may be pockets of excellence in health provision, social welfare and education, we need to start from scratch preparing learners for the challenges of the much-vaunted fourth industrial revolution, whatever that means.

It is one thing to provide free education and for learners to pass matric examinations but another to ensure they are ready for the job market. 

While there has been a lot of noise from business and government on new investments, the reality on the ground is that such investments are more about retooling the factories with a smattering of new ones, none of which are in the productive sector of the economy.

It more and more resembles a photo opportunity and back slapping while everyone goes back to continue as if nothing has happened.

It is time the government uses both incentives and disincentives to ensure sustainable investments in the economy.

Playing soft with business has never worked anywhere in the world.

Without a new social compact between labour, government and business we are getting nowhere fast. This is not about wage policy in my view but about an incomes and productivity policy including gain sharing. 

It is the same in the public sector.

Railing against the unions and asking workers to accept austerity measures will not work.

Why would workers be the only ones carrying the burden of reversing state capture when the executive and senior management continue as if nothing has happened.

In fact, the issue may be the wage bill, but it is hard to see how it can be reduced when in fact we need more teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers and police in a number of areas.

Why not tackle the issue of the fully funded government employee pension fund?

After all the main reason we went full funded instead of pay as you go, was the fear that an ANC government would plunder such resources and leave workers without cover when they retire?

Truth is, included in that decision was the fact that it would be funded up to a certain level, not that it would be such that it is sitting on surplus cash while we talk of a huge government debt. 

While it is important to discuss the issue of expropriation of land, there are vast tracts of land currently lying fallow, under government and chiefs that could be made available immediately for social and economic use, helping boost food production and jobs as well as food security for small scale farmers and poor rural and urban households.

Eskom and SAA have shown that talks of restructuring and attracting new funding without any action and buy in by workers ends in disaster.

If in his view the unbundling of Eskom will lead to its recovery, he needs to ensure that the current minister outlines and champions a well thought out programme for implementation by the board.

It is imperative that the board and the new CEO at Eskom are given powers and allowed to exercise such to reverse the current state of affairs or gets sacked should they fail to do so.

We cannot be seated between two stools; a government that wants to micro-manage the board and a board that in law is responsible for turning the institution around.

What is the point of having a board if it cannot turn an enterprise around either because it is incompetent or not allowed to do so?

The same goes for law enforcement agencies.

It is not for the president to determine who or which cases to investigate and to prosecute successfully.

To do so will be to interfere in their work.

The expectations are that he appoints competent people who should do their job without fear or favour and without any hindrance.

It is not too much for the nation to expect that with so much that has come out of the SIU investigations and the Zondo commission, people should have been called to account instead of waiting for its conclusions which may take years before action can be taken.

In any case all he can do is to recommend that they pursue certain cases, so why the wait?

In the past the ANC said that the masses are their own liberators.

It is incumbent upon the President to rally the country behind a discernible plan and trust them to help implement it.

To an extent that the masses demobilised in the hope that a democratic government on its own will deliver or that theirs was only to help remove Zuma, it is time to rise not in rebellion but in support and joint effort with the government to ensure the much promised better life for all is realised. 

Do I believe that the president is capable of rising to the challenge? It is not for me to say. He went to the people asking them to back him and promising to turn the ship around in return.

It is not whether he is the best we have or not. It is that the people have spoken and he is therefore duty bound to perform or risk losing their support in the next election. 

I wait with bated breath on what he, as head of government is prepared to do to show that it is not all talk but a determination to change the plight of our country for the better.

Say what you like about Madiba, Mbeki and Zuma.

One thing they had in common was to act in their convictions regardless of the consequences even though the latter ended up plunging the country into ruin.

There are a lot of low hanging fruits that the president can harvest on the economy, jobs, infrastructure, public health and education, safety and security and a clear line of march on Eskom, SAA and graft in the public and private sector.

The nation waits.

– Mbhazima Shilowa is a former Premier of the Gauteng Province, trade unionist and Cope leader.

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