SONA 2017 an anti-climax, writes UJ’s David Monyae with Mbongeni Myende

It is ironic that in 2017, when South African divisions are more pronounced than at any time since the fall of apartheid, the theme for the state of the nation address was `The year of Oliver Reginald Tambo: unity in action together moving South Africa forward`.

Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), penned an opinion piece together with Mr Mbongeni Myende, entitled “Riotous assembly tells own story of state of the nation“, published in the Sunday Times, 12 February 2017.

This is misleading on two fronts. First, the calibre of leadership personified by Tambo the humble but resilient servant of the disenfranchised peoples of South Africa compared with the tainted legacy of President Jacob Zuma. Second, and more imperative than character variances, 2017 sees Zuma at the epicentre of the largest divisions sown by anyone since apartheid within and outside the ANC.

Within the ANC top six there were public disputes in approach regarding the 94 mentally ill patients who died after being sent from Life Esidimeni to private care. Where Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, and Baleka Mbete, speaker of the National Assembly, would have opted to open the Sona with a moment of silence, the president was more interested in getting on with the battle he had planned with the imposing red overalls to his left, again missing the opportunity to unite in favour of division. The president`s address should be understood in the context of the domestic, regional and global political climate.

Nationally there are areas of concern, including our sluggish economy which hinders the achievement of the National Development Plan`s objectives. The unrest in higher education poses a problem in getting skilled labour efficiently to remedy our high unemployment.

At a regional level, continued conflict in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Gambia, et cetera, and the worsening economic crises in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland all required decisive leadership from Pretoria working closely within the Southern African Development Community and the AU.

Globally the rise of national protectionism, personified by Brexit and the US presidency of Donald Trump, implied changes in international partnerships with South Africa and Africa.

In all of the above the president did not present sufficient insight and direction with regard to the state`s approach to these issues.

On Tuesday the president said he was deploying 441 soldiers during this year`s Sona to maintain law and order. There was an uproar because the residents of the Cape Flats had been calling, to no avail, for military assistance amid gang violence that had overwhelmed the police.

But on a night when the president was expecting a street fight with his biggest critics, he sought to respond with fighters of his own.

A street fight there was. An hour- long battle started, as it had in the past three years that the EFF has been in parliament. It raged to physical violence with profanities from the back benches of the ANC to the EFF and back again.

The speakers of parliament failed to contain it, but that was not the aim. This year the ANC was prepared to fight back and reclaim parliament from the misbehaving EFF, with their points of order and disruptions. The ANC was going to flex its muscles as the ruling party and leave an impression of power. Rowdy parliamentarians are not new, but in the context of South African history images of a martial law contain a bitter nostalgia.

When the pandemonium subsided a little over an hour into the scheduled start of the address, the president proceeded to deliver a retrospective view of the achievements of the government and plot a route forward in the coming 12 months.

The speech was an anticlimax from the hair-raising events that had preceded it and which were still audible outside.

It was especially dull as he provided an account of the state. Our resounding achievements and our dismal failures were drivelled on in a staccato monotone detached of emotion and perspective, as if they were someone else`s words.

He presented the same milestones the ANC speaks about at every Sona, namely land distribution, economic transformation, education, housing, health and energy. All well and good, but the bone of contention that led to factionalism in the ANC and the party`s loss of support in some provinces, is not due to poor policy, but rather the application of a policy.

Land distribution has been argued about since 1994 and the government`s role was to facilitate the return of land to the rightful owners after the apartheid legacy of misappropriated land. But most land is still in white hands. The government programmes to solve this problem have been largely unsuccessful and are not fruitful for the large number of people who remain landless.

The rhetoric of radical economic transformation is not new either. Various economic programmes by the government to bridge the gap have largely failed at delivering sustained economic transformation to the people.

Worse yet, planning to drive economic revolution by using small and medium enterprises for government procurement has failed. The 94 deaths resulted from a failure to effectively put this policy into action.

This failure is as a result of poor tender processes that enable corruption and the funnelling of government funds to officials` pockets through patronage.

Again we critique the implementation, which is seemingly deliberately ignored in favour of the chorus of policy objectives we all support.

But there is a silver lining. The energy grid feedback was welcome, especially for those seven million households illuminated since 1994.

This means just over 90% of households have access to electricity, now that the Medupi and Kusile power stations have come online.

The president was not forthcoming on the question of nuclear energy. The silence on this adds to the dark mistrust around nuclear energy and the administration as a whole.

The deaths of the 94 stained an otherwise positive outlook on the health ministry.

The report on progress made on National Health Insurance should be commended. However, as with other endeavours, funding will be a point of debate among the government and other stakeholders.

The #FeesMustFall movement came out the big winner of the address, with the freezing of fees within the missing middle and increased assistance and efficiency of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

The key question of rising costs for access to higher education remains unanswered and a gap still exists in finding sustainable solutions.

The Sona had a promising yet contradictory theme. It lost momentum because of the anarchy. This was an illustration of the state of the politics of our country. The budget speech will determine whether the chorus of ANC policy will get the needed traction in terms of implementation.

Dr Monyae is a political analyst and co-director of the University of Johannesburg`s Confucius Institute, and Mbongeni Myende is an independent consultant based in Johannesburg.

*The views expressed in the article are that of the author/s and do not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg


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