The State of the Nation Address by South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, heralds a new dawn for the country. After a decade of maladministration, venal politics, corruption and the wrecking of a number of important state institutions, any alternative would have filled South Africans with optimism.
There is little doubt that, even if they are dealing with the same party, the leadership, determination and discipline that Ramaphosa will bring to their politics will be very different to the last decade under Jacob Zuma.
Although South Africans should be thankful for the persistence and courage of opposition parties, civil society, courts and media, an obvious fact shouldn’t be forgotten. Ultimately it was the ANC itself that was the agent of change. The ANC, not the Constitutional Court, nor the vocal opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), nor the media, nor South Africa’s citizens, brought Zuma’s calamitous and corrupt reign to an end.
Laying aside the ecstatic optimism that’s marked the end of the Zuma era, and looking at the detail of Ramaphosa’s speech in parliament, the question that comes to minds is: what does it promise?
No ordinary speech
First, this was not any old ordinary state of the nation address. It was the speech of an incoming president laying out his vision, not really a programme of what government hopes to achieve over the coming year. The hope, sense of renewal and determination was evident throughout: to root out corruption; rebuild state capacity; enable jobs; support education; re-industrialise the economy.
Ramaphosa said he would personally drive and ensure throughput. What a breath of fresh air on a number of levels: responsible leadership; concrete ideas; and, finally, a speech actually written by a leader.
Second, this state of the nation address promises serious action to stabilise the state as well as to spur South Africa’s depressed economy. But growth, development, reducing inequality and turning the tide on rampant unemployment requires a capable state. Ramaphosa clearly understands this. He has a mammoth task ahead of him. Fortunately, he’s not short of ideas. He:
focused at length on making 2018 the year of turning the tide on corruption;
had specific points on how to intervene decisively to sort out the parlous state of state owned enterprises. In particular, he accepts that many of the problems at the state owned enterprises are structural. For example, he said that it was vital to remove directors from having any role in procurement.
insisted on reviewing the size of the state bureaucracy;
hinted that nonperforming ministers will lose their jobs; and
stressed the need for government to lead in creating an environment of stability and certainty.
Third, the speech was carefully balanced to keep the markets happy, but also with an eye on rectifying South Africa’s past injustices. For example, he talked about the need to expropriate land without compensation. But he was careful in his wording, adding that it had to be done in a way that “increases agricultural production and ensures food security”.
South Africans produced a collective sigh of relief. A tumultuous era has ended and there’s a silver lining to the cloud that has been hanging over the country.
Need for vigilance
South Africans shouldn’t relax. Politicians must be held accountable. But for this to truly work, the country needs to change its electoral system. The current balance of power means that citizens aren’t able to hold their political representatives accountable, including their president. It is no accident that the executive, and Zuma in particular, were able to use parliament to make a mockery of citizens’ concerns and the constitution.
The party-list proportional representation system means that South Africans elect representatives who don’t have any real link to their needs and interests in the areas in which they live and work. Instead, candidates are nominated and elected on party lists. This has rendered parliament a lame-duck. Decisions in parliament aren’t made by the people’s representatives – they’re made by the party in power.
This also means that parliament, not the people, elects the president. This needs to be rectified.
The events of the last two months only prove a depressing reality: the only way citizens can really get rid of a ‘rogue president’ and a ‘constitutional delinquent’ is via the strange process of the liberation party undertaking a ‘recall’ of one of its ‘deployees’.
South Africans have come a long way since 1994, but the country’s constitutional and political institutions are products of their time – a time of real, and understandable fear about ensuring that the country never returned to the horrors of apartheid. The ironic result is that ordinary citizens – especially as represented in parliament – don’t have the means to affect change.
The democratic miracle is stillborn. The country cannot mature into a full-blown democracy until major reforms are undertaken. If Ramaphosa really wants to seize this new dawn, if he really wants to change the course of South Africa’s democratic history, he needs to think even more boldly.
The reconstruction of South Africa’s shattered state is vital. But as he does so he could also reconfigure it. It needs deep, structural change to properly empower the people to hold political representatives accountable. Acting in this way would trigger two further developments: the ANC would, finally, have to transform itself from being a liberation movement into a political party; and citizens could start to realise that the party is not equivalent to the state.