An admission of failure, a turn to the Right

The president veered sharply towards a pro-business position in his state of the nation address, moving against the demands of the largest organisations of the working class.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address began with a clear acknowledgment of the scale and severity of the crisis – social, economic and political – into which South Africa has collapsed. He made the obvious but nonetheless powerful point that the burning of Parliament on the second day of the new year “speaks to a broader devastation in our land”.

But from there he moved quickly into empty Obamaesque banalities promising that there would be “fundamental change” and that “no one must be left behind” before making the two central points that would anchor his address. The first was a commitment to “ensure that those who are responsible for state capture are punished for their crimes”, and the second a commitment to build “a new consensus which recognises that the state must create an environment in which the private sector can invest and unleash the dynamism of the economy”.

Echoing an idea much favoured by the right-wing economic populism of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Ramaphosa promised to “cut red tape across government”, implying that once government was out of the way the salvific power of capital would break its bonds. He recognised the “ruinous effects of state capture” on the economy and offered a response broadly rooted in a commitment to deregulation, commodification and privatisation.

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Ramaphosa’s speech marked both a recognition that the ANC’s attempt to use the state to drive an emancipatory project has failed – and failed badly – and a striking rupture with the political thought and strategy of the ANC, which across most of its currents has always seen the state as the central driver of progressive change.

DA leader John Steenhuisen called the state of the nation address perfectly when he said, with some excitement, that it “could easily have been a DA speech”. One area, though, in which the address was thankfully not a DA speech was that Ramaphosa resisted the rapidly growing pressure to take the opportunistic road of scapegoating migrants for the social crisis.

Contesting hopes

Prior to Ramaphosa’s speech, the two largest trade union federations, Cosatu and Saftu, as well as Abahlali baseMjondolo, the only movement of impoverished people that organises at a significant scale, issued statements outlining their hopes for the address.

Cosatu, which has recovered much of its credibility since its break with Jacob Zuma and the departure of its former president Sdumo Dlamini, made it clear that it wanted a move away from conservative macroeconomic policy. It demanded decisive action against corruption and that state capacity be rebuilt, including restoring the integrity and efficiency of state-owned enterprises. Cosatu also wants the Covid grant extended beyond March 2023 and “increased to the food poverty line of R624”, a development the federation said could become an “affordable foundation for a basic income grant”. 

Alarmingly, Cosatu took a clear step away from the internationalism that has long anchored the progressive trade union movement around the world. Instead of expressing unqualified solidarity with migrants and an unequivocal rejection of the rapid normalisation of xenophobic forms of politics, it expressed its hope that the president would announce measures “to enforce the current labour and immigration laws”.

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Saftu, moving from what it called the “social powder keg’s partial explosion in July 2021”, took a strong position in support of the necessity to introduce a basic income grant of R1 500 a month. Noting severe budget cuts in areas such as health and education, the federation demanded that Ramaphosa “reverse the austerity that his government is implementing and shove fiscal consolidation down the throat of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, not the people who elected the ANC to power”. It also listed examples of “foreign direct investment” that, instead of magically alleviating our problems, have led to exploitation, environmental damage and illicit financial flows.

Saftu insisted that “decisive punishment must now finally be imposed against corruption, both in the private and public sector”. And, in a welcome divergence from the Cosatu statement, warned that it expected Ramaphosa “to join the xenophobia bandwagon and attack foreign workers, many of whom are refugees from his own ruling party’s catastrophic history of backing repressive regimes in most of our neighbouring countries”.

Abahlali baseMjondolo made only three demands, which it described as “very modest”. These demands were for a basic income grant, “support for democratically organised cooperatives that enable people to sustain themselves in the form of food security” – something that would, the movement noted, require rapid land reform – and an immediate end to “the violent repression of the self-organisation of the poor, such as in the eKhenana commune”.

Politically isolated

Taken together, the demands from the three largest organisations of working class and impoverished people, especially when placed in the wider context of their current politics, indicated an implicit but uniform hostility to the kleptocratic faction of the ANC, a project of predatory elites that has been carried out at the direct expense of these two groups. On this issue, along with their shared demand that the government act decisively against corruption, there are possible grounds for a tactical alliance with Ramaphosa.

But on other matters there is uniform opposition to the direction in which Ramaphosa says he intends taking the government. The president did announce that the R350 Covid grant would be extended, something he could hardly refuse given that its withdrawal was one of the triggers for the July riots last year. But there was no clear commitment to the introduction of a basic income grant, and instead of committing to build the capacity of the state to intervene in society and the economy with the aim of achieving social goals, he pivoted strongly towards the Right on many economic and policy questions.

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Ramaphosa has taken positions that put him at direct odds with the kleptocratic faction in his party. With the exception of his stated opposition to corruption, it also puts him at a significant distance from his allies in the Left of the ruling alliance. This leaves him politically isolated.

Business and liberal opinion will, no doubt, be enthusiastic about the “comprehensive social compact to grow our economy, create jobs and combat hunger” that Ramaphosa has promised to develop within 100 days. But an elite compact in the name of those who are without work and suffering hunger that will not be supported by either of the big trade union federations or Abahlali baseMjondolo cannot be a social compact.

A road out of our crisis will require a real social compact, one that includes all of society and reaches beyond opposing corruption and restoring the integrity of the state to understand that, as the recently released report on the July riots concluded, “it is time for South Africans to accept that those who have must share with those who do not. It is that simple, really.”

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