If President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address is a guide, the government knows some of what it needs to do – but not how to do it.
Addresses on the state of the nation are often invested with abnormal hype from the media, commentators and the sorts of voices they take seriously. As usual, all of them insisted that the speech would tell us whether the nation was doomed or saved. This is, of course, nonsense.
The addresses are often a useful guide to some of what the government is thinking. But besides the obvious point that a country’s prospects are decided by far more than a speech by the head of government, they don’t even tell us everything the government plans for the year because there might be good political reasons for not revealing some decisions now. The fact that no basic income grant was announced does not mean the government has rejected the proposal, but simply that it is not ready to say anything about it.
The state of the nation address is given not by a candidate for Messiah but a politician. This politician is the leader of the ANC’s insiders – those who earn a wage or salary. His government decided a while ago that the way to fight poverty and unemployment is to rely on investment by private businesses, which means not upsetting them much. So if anyone was really expecting a radical plan to redistribute wealth, they were not paying attention.
But he is also a politician whose party relies on the votes of the outsiders who don’t get a wage or salary, or get a very small one, and so he has to take poverty and inequality seriously. The chorus of free-market zealots who want the government to leave the poor to their own devices were also bound to be disappointed.
In addition, Ramaphosa prepared the speech knowing that he heads a governing party under more political pressure than ever before, after its share of the vote dropped to below 50% in the 2021 local elections. This reflects general citizen disenchantment, but it happened primarily because the outsiders turned their backs on the ANC; the insiders, who monopolise the national debate, ditched the party and its government almost a decade ago and are unlikely to return.
These realities mean that the speech was never about how the talking heads reacted to it. No state of the nation of address will ever impress the insiders as nothing an ANC-led government says or does will ever please them. If Ramaphosa had announced a watertight plan for perpetual world peace, he would have been trashed for selling out the arms industry. The people he needs to impress, the outsiders whose votes will decide the ANC’s prospects, are ignored by the debate. They are also likely to base their judgement of Ramaphosa and his government not on what he says in televised speeches, but on what they do on the ground to help people improve their lives.
A government for the people
So, the importance of the address rested not on public reaction to it, but on whether it showed that the government had a credible plan to win back the outsiders. That means addressing two issues that explain why the ANC did so badly at the polls. First, making the government serve people who don’t have an income from the market and need public services that work for them. Second, opening up the benefits of the economy to the millions who are excluded. On both, the speech confirmed that the government understands the problem, at least in theory.
On the first, people in townships and shack settlements feel let down by the government not because it does not operate like a corporation, but because they believe, with good reason, that it does not care about them. The solution is to begin hearing them and taking seriously what they say. As an insider president, Ramaphosa inevitably had much to say about technical fixes. But he did also acknowledge that “a capable state is not only about the quality of public servants and the efficiency of institutions. It is also, fundamentally, about how citizens are empowered to participate.”
On the second, an economy that begins to include the excluded will need to be negotiated. Simply responding to business demands for change – which much of the address did – will deepen the pain of most people and cost the ANC the next election. The voices calling for change to be imposed on business are far too weak to make that happen. And so a bargain is needed – Ramaphosa has been promising a “social compact” between business, labour, government and citizens’ groups for a while. The address revealed that the parties have now given themselves 100 days to complete the compromises needed to produce the “consensus” the government says is needed.
But if the government knows, at least partly, what the problems are, the state of the nation address showed that it does not have a workable plan to deal with them.
Shortcomings laid bare
Its solution to people’s alienation from the government is “to ensure that platforms like school governing bodies and community policing forums are more active and inclusive”. This sounds good, but these formal forums don’t work for poor people and never will – they are tailor-made for the well-heeled and connected. People will be heard only if democratic politics is strengthened so that public servants and elected representatives are judged on whether they listen to the people, not on whether they have embraced the latest information technologies.
Its social compact rests on the strange idea that differences reflecting two centuries of history can be wished away in 100 days and that, in a society as deeply divided as this one, a “consensus” on what to do about poverty and inequality is possible. This has been tried before and it didn’t work then either. In the Mbeki years, the government hosted summits at which the parties made solemn promises to work together but made no effort to keep them.
This happened because the divisions are too deep to be sorted out in a few days at a conference venue – or in 100 days at a bargaining forum. The “consensus” that the state of the nation address promised is simply not possible. The point of negotiation is not to get people divided by a long history to agree on everything. Trying to get them to do that will, as the summits showed, simply make them pretend to agree so they don’t look bad.
Progress against poverty and inequality will require not a nice-sounding compact hammered out in a few months, but a continuing process of bargaining over the next few years. This is likely only if the government places on the table its own plans for change and forces other parties to react. Real negotiations are also about power and conflict, and the country will need to put up with both if it wants an economy that includes far more than the one-third it now serves.
Having diagnosed the problems, could the government be persuaded to tackle them in a way that fixes them? That depends on whether those who want change have the power and the will to make that happen. It does not seem likely as long as people expect a single speech delivered once a year to do what their lack of organisation and strategy prevent them from doing.