President Cyril Ramaohosa will deliver his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday (8 February) at 19h00, where analysts, political opponents and business leaders don’t hold out much hope for anything of substance to materialise.
Given that 2024 is an election year, South Africa will be subject to not one but two SONAs, with a second national address to be delivered by the next president of the country (likely to be Ramaphosa again) after the national vote.
Because of this setup, Ramaphosa’s February SONA is likely to be dominated by the president taking stock of the work his administration has done over the last five years, leaving the announcement of new initiatives and measures to tackle South Africa’s various crises to the second speech later in the year.
As with previous SONAs, analysts anticipate inflated successes and empty promises from the president – with a mix of subtle election campaigning for the ANC – but there are key topics that are likely to stick out.
Here are the key things to watch out for:
Ramaphosa proclaimed the date for the 2019 elections in a state-of-the-nation address and may do the same this week.
On Wednesday, his spokesman said an announcement would be made within 15 days. Once that happens, the date will be published in the Government Gazette, and the voters’ roll will close.
The vote must take place by August, and several opinion polls show that the ruling African National Congress risks losing its national majority for the first time since it took power under Nelson Mandela in 1994.
There’s been a tug-of-war within the government over whether a temporary R350 rand monthly stipend introduced to cushion the unemployed against the fallout from the coronavirus should be made permanent.
The National Treasury has called for a comprehensive review of the entire welfare system and warned that the income grants are unsustainable unless new sources of revenue are found.
However, the ANC insists that an extension to the stipends is non-negotiable. Ramaphosa told a party meeting last month that there is “a strong case for a permanent form of a targeted income-support grant for the unemployed within our fiscal constraints.”
If he does pronounce on the matter, it will likely fall to Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana to spell out where the money will come from when he delivers his annual budget on 21 February.
Energy and rail crises
Ramaphosa is likely to elaborate on what is being done to tackle power shortages and logistical snarl-ups that have hamstrung the economy – but he isn’t expected to unveil new overarching plans.
The country endured record blackouts last year, some lasting as long as 12 hours a day, because state utility Eskom couldn’t keep pace with demand for electricity from its old and poorly maintained plants.
While private investors have been enlisted to bring new capacity online, the process has been a bumpy one.
Transnet, the struggling state-owned company that runs the freight rail network and all the main ports, has committed to implementing a turnaround plan to address complaints from mining companies and farmers that they can’t get sufficient volumes of their goods to market.
In December, the government agreed to provide the company with R47 billion in debt guarantees, and Ramaphosa may signal whether more support will be forthcoming.
Late last year, lawmakers signed off on the contentious National Health Insurance Bill, which seeks to facilitate the provision of universal access to health care through a centrally managed government fund that buys services and medicines from public and private providers.
The legislation has been referred to the president, who can either approve it or ask the legislature to amend it if he deems it to be legally or technically flawed. While Ramaphosa is unlikely to announce that he has signed off on the bill, he may signal how close he is to a decision.
During election campaigning, Ramaphosa has vowed to sign the bill into law before the end of term.
Business groups and opposition parties say the law erodes the constitutional rights of patients and healthcare professionals, and they intend to challenge it in court if it is adopted in its current form.
The Treasury has been working with the presidency on a plan to restructure the cabinet, which has expanded since Ramaphosa took office in 2018 despite his repeated commitments to slim it down.
The president may specify what concrete action will be taken to reduce the number of ministers and deputies and merge departments with similar mandates should he win another term.
Rationalization will go some way toward helping the Treasury contain a runaway public-sector wage bill that is destabilizing public finances.
Business wish list
Business groups are hoping for a more clear-cut message from the president, focusing on how the government will improve and steer away from corruption, among others.
Business Unity South Africa has a 6-point wishlist for the speech, including:
- A clear acknowledgment from the president of the partnership between the government and business on energy, logistics, crime, and corruption.
- A clear indication that government and the private sector must collaborate to address the crises in SA.
- A commitment from the government to open up space for greater participation by the private sector in building, operating, and maintaining critical logistics networks and to generate energy.
- A clear commitment to ensure that critical pieces of legislation, like the National Prosecuting Authority Amendment Bill will be processed with speed.
- An indication that municipal government will be prioritised, with a view to enabling political and administrative structures that focus on service delivery and infrastructure, moving away from the current shambles caused by political fighting.
- A further commitment to deal decisively with corruption, bring people to account and ensure prosecutions.