SA’s longest-serving leader of the opposition, Sir de Villiers Graaff, had a handy solution to the numerous crises faced by his United Party.
“When in doubt, Div would appoint a committee,” one of his confidantes once told me. That worked until it didn’t and the UP dissolved itself, appropriately perhaps, on a Johannesburg ice rink way back in 1977.
There was something of the Sir de Villiers Graaff approach in the most recent State of the Nation speech of President Cyril Ramaphosa, under scrutiny this week in parliament.
While I was watching Ramaphosa last Thursday, and before my wife took the remote and insisted we watch real dystopian fiction in the form of the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I counted no fewer than nine commissions, panels, committees, summits and councils announced, or re-announced, by Ramaphosa.
I was advised last week, by one of his aides, that Thursday’s speech “would undergo eight or even nine redrafts, before he is satisfied”. Just a pity then that none of the nine committees was axed in redrafting, or no one thought to insert the file heading for which Winston Churchill achieved fame during war time, namely “Action This Day”.
Instead, for every one of the challenges, or crises, confronting the country there is a bureaucratic solution: Of the biggest disaster to the sovereign balance sheet and the basic duty of the state, namely the looted, ailing and corrupted Eskom, there is both an accelerated bailout and the “Eskom Sustainability Task Team and Technical Review Committee”.
On the rest of the ailing to bankrupt state-owned companies, no suggestion of cutting back, privatising or downsizing. Instead, brace for change with the “Presidential SOE Council” which did merit mention in the speech.
On the unaffordable National Health Insurance rollout, given the national debt of R3.16-trillion and rising, there is no figure, just the jaw-dropping “Presidential Health Summit Compact”.
For the 45,035 rapes recorded in SA in 2017/18 (40% of whose victims are children) and overall 60,000 acts of domestic violence reported, a “Gender Based Violence and Femicide Council” coupled with a “National Strategic Plan to eliminate this scourge”.
Nine million people unemployed? We have a National Wage Commission to cover the lucky ones in work.
And for the Cape ganglands, no suggestion of devolving police authority to the province as requested by premier Alan Winde. But there is a “National Anti- Gang Strategy” coupled with a “Revised National Drug Master Plan”.
Eighty percent of 10-year-olds can’t read for meaning at our schools. Time then for the screws to be placed on incompetent and underperforming teachers? Not mentioned. But there is a “National Reading Coalition” to assist, the president advised.
One of the speech’s mercies, however, was that the president did not reference or revive the Moral Regeneration Commission. Readers of a certain vintage might recall that circa 2002 it was headed by deputy president Jacob Zuma. He enthusiastically gushed in his “message of support” following its “second workshop” that it had addressed the heart of moral certitude: “Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, questions of ethical behaviour and moral values, are as pertinent for national survival as they were in the days of the Greek philosophers … ”
That worked out well, but presumably was before an infamous and more modern Indian family from Saxonwold came calling.
And overarching all these committees, commissions, plans, strategies, task teams, compacts, technical reviews, and councils there is the Big Daddy of them all, the National Development Plan (NDP). This was dusted off on Thursday night as well as the uber document to guide us toward two million new youth jobs, high growth and doubtless the smart cities, bullet trains and robotic medicine which came in at the speech’s tail end.
Actually, I am sure a committee here or there might inch us further forward, but the touching faith placed in corporatist solutions and intergovernmental committees to national problems on the scale confronting us could be naively misplaced at best. At worst, it is a case – to quote the under-fire but likely next prime minister of Britain, Boris Johnson, “If we kick the can we kick the bucket”.
But what Ramaphosa did on Thursday was to absent himself from what he promised to do at the outset of the address: to announce “difficult choices that may not please everyone”. Nor indeed did he do anything but dangle in the air his previous comment at his inauguration of “the defining moment” confronting the nation. Tough choices? Defining Moments? Action This Day? No word or elaboration in the speech. Maybe Ace Magashule binned them.
No acknowledgment, either, of the numerous policy mistakes and wrong direction undertaken by the party which he leads. Or that many of its shibboleths need to be junked if the nation is to survive. There will be a spectrum auction and a “world-class visa regime” but these were both promised in 2018 and have yet to see the light of day.
In precise terms, Ramaphosa wrote in the Financial Times (23 October 2018): “We have implemented a review of the visa regime to attract more tourists and skilled workers.” Now, eight months later, it remains unsighted.
On the Eskom financial crisis, even the hyped February announcement of splitting the utility into three separate units, much to the consternation of the unions, received no acknowledgment or reference in the June speech. Has it been dropped? Shelved? Kicked down the road? We are no wiser, except that several more multiples of billions will be thrown at the cash-guzzler. Or will the February announcement of a “restructuring officer” now “soon to be appointed”, be lumbered with the task of splitting up the behemoth? Meantime, since the February speech, Eskom is currently leaderless, its CEO having retired, literally, hurt.
But if he were to revisit his own (since he was vice-chairman of the planning commission which drafted it) NDP he might be reminded of a defining paragraph in its diagnostic overview which he chose not to share with parliament or the nation last Thursday. It reads: Successful countries have what is called a “future orientation”. This is not about bullet trains or smart cities of the future or sandcastles in the air, but rather, as the NDP more modestly reminds us the menu consists of, “ … policy bias to take decisions that lead to long-term benefits, as opposed to short-run solutions that could have negative effects later on”.
Rampahosa’s speech was, however, pretty precise in re-litigating the past. It commenced with the 106th anniversary of the dispossessing Native Lands Act. But then in terms of restoration of dignity via the plethora of plans for new housing and land to overcome spatial apartheid and the dire need for improved infrastructure, Ramaphosa re-conjured the much-announced (its provenance is in the Zuma heyday of 2012) not-yet-sighted Infrastructure Fund and “implementation team”.
But how are all these grand plans, expensive rollouts and exorbitant bailouts to be funded? Absent of “quantitative easing” (or printing money) which is not compatible with the president’s commendable recommit to the constitutional mandate and independence of the Reserve Bank, the sums simply don’t add up.
The growth Ramaphosa promised, the investment the country desperately needs and the consumer confidence required won’t come out of a committee or a panel or a strategy document. And it certainly can’t come from appeasing Ace Magashule and his gang. You can’t meet the exigencies of the moment by kicking the can down the road.
It will only happen when the president takes the country into his confidence and actually commits to the “difficult choices that may not please everyone”. His please-everyone attempt last week avoided that task entirely. And so it satisfied no one.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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