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SONA 2022: A bold statement that now is the time to walk the talk

Long before delivering his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA), concerns reverberated in the political and social corridors surrounding President Cyril Ramaphosa, urging him to make conclusive statements, to have the heads of those implicated in corruption roll and to report on achievements and challenges.

However, the somewhat overwhelming dismissive responses from prominent opposition party leaders may seem as if they are not eager to engage with the SONA constructively.

Thus, it seems that no matter how well the SONA is delivered, there will always be those who dismiss it as a trivialisation of South Africa’s challenges.

There were times during one or two of the ‘family meetings’ – live broadcasts by the president, addressing the nation on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and the regulations to be amended – that it was vividly evident that Ramaphosa was taking strain.

However, all this was gone when Ramaphosa delivered the SONA like a true statesman, without any visible signs of the ambush he was facing from within and outside his own political party.

In fact, the need to be bold and resolute about the government’s stability has never been stronger after recent attacks on several national key points across the country.

In a recent reading group session of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State, we discussed the assumed power of documents when conducting research.

The emphasis was on the need to avoid an over-zealous reduction of a research question to documentary evidence without considering the document’s terms (or context).

Similarly, it is interesting to note that since 2018, Ramaphosa has established 24 advisory panels, advisory councils, task committees and commissions.

While it may seem rather obvious that some of these panels have been designated by statute for a specific purpose, the assumed powers of the reports produced are sometimes the most difficult to unravel.

One such instance is the report of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, which was viewed as a magic wand that would root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

In the face of the complex set of interlocking challenges that are hampering structural growth and change in South Africa, reports from committees may provide an in-depth examination of issues.

However, there are at least two problems with policy makers who invariably think that these reports, including national addresses such as SONA, are solutions to the country’s myriad challenges.

First, a recent publication of Transparency International highlights how some governments are trivialising the results of its Corruption Perceptions Index.

The trivialisation mainly happens when leaders who have come into office with a strong anti-corruption narrative fail to make inroads against this scourge.

For example, in South Africa, pronouncements on corruption – one of the leading causes of the state’s failure to deliver on promises – have been so subtle that those involved in corrupt practices may not even notice the seriousness of their acts.

The other problem is the reluctance to change non-performing accounting systems that are susceptible to abuse.

South Africa has been trying to fix the puzzle of corruption long before the arrival of the Zondo Commission.

Therefore, acknowledging that public institutions and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been infiltrated by a criminal network intent on looting public money is merely a starting point but not a satisfactory explanation in its own right.

Moreover, it does not account for the government’s glaring failure to act upon the Auditor-General’s annual findings on irregular and unaccounted expenditure.

It would have been more desirable for the government to insist on better financial accountability than its over-reliance on commissions or advisory panels.

As the nation waits with bated breath to see how corruption is tackled ‘once and for all’, as the president announced, a further qualification needs to be made regarding the proposed disposal of the government’s non-strategic SOEs.

Estimates of global trends in privatisation indicate that privatisation activities are on the rise.

In South Africa, there is a great deal of evidence that a handful of politically connected individuals often benefit from the privatisation of government assets.

This raises important questions that are beyond the scope of this contribution – for example, how SOEs will be further weakened to hasten the process of privatisation.

Ramaphosa made a bold statement through his promise and commitment to revitalise the country’s weak economy, deal with Eskom’s unreliable electrical supply and bring about changes to security agencies, among others.

The extent, urgency and sincerity with which the government will implement these and many other commitments will determine whether we will ‘emerge victorious’, as Ramaphosa announced.

Mr President, we know the road ahead will not be easy.

But in many ways, there has been an improvement.

One possible solution to continue this trajectory of accountability and improved service delivery is to take full advantage of the benefits of the digital age.

A digitisation drive underscored by a consequence management approach may assist in implementing the SONA promises and commitments in a more efficient, flexible and sustainable manner.

In this way, South Africa will begin to ‘walk the talk’ against poverty, unemployment and inequality.

  • Professor Sethulego Matebesi is the academic head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State

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