In 1966, as the US escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War, beleaguered president Lyndon Johnson and his administration denied the surge. Congressman (and later president) Gerald Ford coined the phrase “credibility gap” — the discrepancy between what a politician claims to be the case and the facts of the matter. Columnist Walter Lippmann suggested this was simply parsing words: “In order to avoid the embarrassment of calling a spade a spade, newspapermen have agreed to talk about a credibility gap. This is a polite euphemism for deception.”

The rancorous and foulmouthed behaviour of the US president, Donald Trump, and an adversarial media, have long relegated such euphemisms to the trash bin. Still, credibility gap is a useful lens to view the state of the nation speech delivered last week by our own head of state. It seemed incredible at two levels from the outset: first, that Cyril Ramaphosa commendably kept his cool in the face of the race-spewing rage and resentments and, frankly, Reichstag tactics of the EFF. But the second strain of incredulity was that after this 90-minute loutish interruption Ramaphosa  said absolutely nothing about it. As though the demeaning of parliament and the abuse, and worse, of its rules for conduct are of no concern at all for the man whose office was defined by the Constitutional Court as “the apex of our constitutional project”.

It is true that for any effective policy changes to happen it is neither parliament nor the people of SA who provide Ramaphosa with his permission slip. On all matters greater than his need for a bathroom break it appears only the ANC national executive committee (NEC) can provide assent. But surely calling out the wreckers and vandalisers of the “constitutional project” is the essence of presidential leadership, for which no permission is needed? The most credible aspects of the lengthy speech, when Ramaphosa was finally permitted to deliver it, bore the impression of a doctor with a lousy diagnosis to deliver to a sick patient and few effective prescriptions to stop the spread of the disease. But this dire news is offset by the physician’s excellent bedside manner.

Ramaphosa pirouetted his perceived weaknesses — a lack of decisive leadership — into a strength. He did this by invoking Mandela and advising both the country and his growing band of detractors: “Achieving consensus and building social compacts is not a demonstration of weakness. It is the essence of who we are.” Of course, left unmentioned in all this was that at important moments in recent history, from starting secret negotiations with the enemy and then undertaking a U-turn on economic policy and even retaining the Springbok symbol, Mandela led first and achieved consensus later.

So, if the essential aim of the hyped, grotesquely fashioned pantomime known as “Sona” is for the president to provide reassurance, calm and an acknowledgement that much has gone wrong in the state of the nation, and it’s not all or even in its present crisis mode attributable to apartheid, Ramaphosa’s speech succeeded. He was the good and stern doctor offering a dose of honesty and a measure of hope in the face of unrelenting facts that offer no comfort.

But from the best to the worst of it: Ramaphosa was hoist on the mast of his previous assurances and remedies. Below the trumpeting of impressive sounding data, he failed to embark on an honest introspection of why the unmet promises of a year ago have deepened the crises he now acknowledges as front and centre of our sea of troubles. The day before Thursday’s parliamentary bunfight energy expert and professor Anton Eberhard provided, via Twitter, the cruellest cut of all. He simply posted the paragraph on Eskom culled from Ramaphosa’s February 2019 Sona address: “Eskom is in crisis and the risks it poses to SA are great … we need to take bold and decisive action … we shall immediately embark on a process for establishing three separate entities — generation, transmission, distribution under Eskom Holdings … it is imperative that we undertake these measures without delay.”

This is where the credibility gap becomes a yawning chasm. The adverb “immediately” means “at once”, “instantly”. Yet all Ramaphosa could report back to parliament a year and one week later, was this: “Eskom has started with the process of divisionalising its three operating activities — generating, transmission and distribution — each of which will have its own boards and management structures.” I mean, really? Another layer of bureaucracy and management for the greatest energy crisis to ever confront this nation. And nothing has happened yet.

Another US president, Bill Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, had his credibility skewered and was impeached when he entered into a defence of the meaning of the word “is”. But Clinton’s abuse of office was forgiven, as undoubtedly the voters will soon pardon the impeached Donald Trump, because both delinquent presidents presided over booming economies. Ramaphosa enjoys no such leeway, and his somnambulant nonchalance over previous promises on Eskom casts a shadow over his undertaking on Thursday to interdict the metastasising disasters at the state-owned energy monopoly.

The best dollop of good news from a year ago suffered an even more curious fate in this year’s Sona. In 2019 Ramaphosa paraded the big oil and gas discovery off the Mossel Bay coast, the deepwater Brulpadda find, as a “game changer” and “catalytic find”. He coupled the announcement to a promise that “government will continue to develop legislation for the sector, so that it is properly regulated for the interests of all concerned”. Yet one year later not one word from him on progress since. As the head of oil and gas at Bowman’s, David Forfar, notes: “The exploration drilling programme continues apace. Brulpadda is among the most challenging deepwater projects in the world and from a declaration of discovery to point of first production is an investment of tens of billions of dollars and production could be 10 years away.”

It took the office of the minister of energy, Gwede Mantashe, the place where renewables and independent power projects go to die, nearly a year to produce a bill for the sector. It is strong on BEE and state ownership requirements, and completely vague on the issues that really matter to the oil majors that can bring the hydrocarbons to the surface: three new taxes but without numbers, no transitional provisions for existing rights, unclear how BEE will be funded, and other blockages that could imperil this sector before the wells are drilled. So much for unlocking a “game changer” that could radically change the economy, offer energy independence and even fund the touted sovereign fund with ease. But the president did reassure us that expropriation without compensation is going ahead.

That pesky credibility gap grew so large for Lyndon Johnson that his presidency was impaled on it just two years after Gerald Ford defined it. Unless immediate deeds follow the fine words offered by Ramaphosa last week, and not more dither and delay, that cruel fate could befall him as well.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.  @TonyLeonSA.

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