Beleaguered president steps up to the promises podium yet again

07 February 2021 - 00:00 By CAIPHUS KGOSANA
President Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to deliver his state of the nation address last year.
President Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to deliver his state of the nation address last year.
Image: Esa Alexander

Two of the four state of the nation addresses that President Cyril Ramaphosa has delivered since taking office in 2018 ended with him quoting from a song.

For the other two, he chose quotes from revered US president Theodore Roosevelt, and Nigerian poet Ben Okri's Infect the World with Your Light.

Last year he concluded his speech with lyrics from World in Union, a Ladysmith Black Mambazo and PJ Powers rendition of the Rugby World Cup song:

We may face high mountains

Must cross rough seas

We must take our place in history

And live with dignity

As we climb to reach our destiny

A new age has begun.

In hindsight, the choice of song was inspired; in February 2020 no-one could have been prepared for what was about to hit - whole economies shut down, productive populations idling at home.

But it is not just the rough seas of Covid-19 that Ramaphosa is passing through; he is shackled by the deep inefficiencies of his own administration, the fragility of his hold on the ANC and the contradictory dynamics of the ruling alliance.

Take, for example, the licensing of high-demand spectrum. In 2020 he made this pledge: "An important condition for the success of our digital economy is the availability of high-demand spectrum to expand broadband access and reliability. The regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa [Icasa], has undertaken to conclude the licensing of high-demand spectrum for industry via auction before the end of 2020."

A year on and the auction for spectrum has not taken place. The minister in charge of the process, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, is engaged in infantile battles with the SABC over retrenchments, a process she should steer clear of. Icasa has pushed the deadline to March 31. The big telecoms companies are angry. Two have gone to court over the process.

What will Ramaphosa say on Thursday? Will he explain why this minister is still in her job?

Failure to implement on this low-hanging fruit is a small part of what keeps the man awake at night. He has four major headaches.

Those close to him say he worries about the commitments he has made to turn the economy around, create employment and get SA going. He realises there isn't enough capacity in the state to fully meet these.

Secondly, he now has a clearer understanding of the damage done to the state during the years of state capture. "It's hollowed out much more than he first thought," a confidant tells me. A lot of the revelations at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture have come as a shock to him.

Ramaphosa is also troubled by what another confidant describes as lack of a line of sight to persistent administrative challenges. "It's about the functionality of the system and its ability to produce evidence that commitments are being met."

Basically, his ministers are not being entirely honest with him about the problems in their departments. Nor are they giving him regular reports.

But more than anything, he is shackled by the political dynamics in his own party and a desperation to keep labour federation Cosatu on his side.

The weakening of his allies in the ANC is a major headache. He has the backing of KwaZulu-Natal's powerful chair, Sihle Zikalala, but anti-Ramaphosa forces are rebuilding their support base in the ANC's biggest province and itching for a challenge.

Gauteng ANC chair David Makhura is also a strong ally, but he has to keep fending off missiles from a faction led by provincial secretary Jacob Khawe, which includes ANC Ekurhuleni chair Mzwandile Masina, who has made his disdain for Ramaphosa public. Makhura would have been perturbed at the sight of Masina at Nkandla with EFF leader Julius Malema and former president Jacob Zuma on Friday.

Lubabalo Mabuyane, chair of the ANC in the Eastern Cape, is also a dependable ally, but his enemies are working hard to depose him. The Northern Cape is too small a province to make a difference.

At ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, Ramaphosa must keep watching his back for the next dagger.

Labour is a constituency he badly needs to remain in power, but his relationship with Cosatu is deteriorating by the hour. SA has promised lenders and ratings agencies that it will rein in spending, starting with the crippling public sector wage bill. With public debt peaking at 87% of GDP, there is simply no money to give civil servants more than they already earn. The government's refusal to honour the last leg of a three-year wage agreement has led to a tense stand-off.

Ramaphosa knows the government cannot renege on its commitments to cut spending without risking a full-blown sovereign debt crisis, but he runs the risk of losing an important ally in Cosatu boss Bheki Ntshalintshali each day that the National Treasury plays hardball with the unions. What a conundrum!

The loss of Jackson Mthembu, his de facto prime minister and an experienced party operative, could not have come at a worse time.

Everyone is losing patience with the president, especially the business community eager for promised economic reforms. They applaud him for his anti-corruption posture and actions to rescue institutions such as the South African Revenue Service. He is also making good on commitments to increase generation capacity. The government has commenced the process of procuring additional energy from a range of sources, notably renewable energy suppliers. Commercial and industrial users are now allowed to produce energy for their own use, and municipalities with the means can completely migrate off the wobbly Eskom grid. But Eskom still carries R480bn in debt and cannot keep its coal dry in the rainy season.

Ramaphosa has a solid economic reconstruction and recovery plan. It has gone through all the talking stages, from Nedlac to the ANC and the cabinet; all it needs is leadership and political will to implement.

But how does he fully implement it with the calibre of cabinet he leads or an incapable administration? He must start making changes and make them fast. He has enough vacancies to justify a cabinet reshuffle.

He styles his presidency as an executive leadership, with him as the CEO of SA Inc. But effective CEOs are ruthless in dealing with underperformance.

Time is not on his side. The radical economic transformation faction has regrouped and is preparing to mount a serious challenge to his presidency.

With the president's legacy at stake and seemingly losing on most fronts, his speech writers might want to quote from Peter Gabriel to close his address this year:

No fight left or so it seems

I'm a man whose dreams have all deserted

I've changed my face, I've changed my name

But no-one wants you when you lose.

The song this is from is, of course, Don't Give Up.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.