/Ralph Mathekga: Ramaphosas SONA should forget balance and focus on what can be achieved

Ralph Mathekga: Ramaphosas SONA should forget balance and focus on what can be achieved

2020-02-04 07:00

With the stark challenges as the ones we are experiencing, the best option for the president would be to forget about the art of balancing and commit to a few things and make it clear as to when they will be done, writes Ralph Mathekga.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will be delivering a not-so-anticipated State of the Nation Address next week.

He is under tremendous pressure on all fronts; which begs the question as to what the president would prioritise.

The challenge is that there are too many things that require urgent attention, to a point where it is difficult to decide as to what should be prioritised.

Challenges range from the ailing economy, ailing state-owned entities such as Eskom and South African Airway (SAA), worrying levels of crime, and an anti-corruption machine that seem to be grinding to a halt as state capture perpetrators are still enjoying their freedom.

In a situation such as this, it would be difficult for the president to decide which challenges need more urgent attention than others.

The significance of the State of the Nation Address is that it should emphasise what needs to be prioritised as distinct from what can be pursued at a normal pace.

The reality that Ramaphosa faces is that every challenge seems to be urgent now.

This is because we have allowed severe deterioration of services and capacity in the public service in the past few years.

If the president comes out and mentions everything in his speech, he would have said nothing of significance.

That would not give an indication as to what will be attended to in the short term.

A list of priorities that mentions everything under the sun would not really inspire much. If the president avoids mentioning some of the challenges experienced in society, he would be accused of being out of touch with the people.

This leaves one wondering what type of speech would be more acceptable under conditions such as this.

With the stark challenges as the ones we are experiencing, the best option for the president would be to forget about the art of balancing and commit to a few things and make it clear as to when they will be done.

This requires a very short speech that focuses mostly on those things in relation to which progress can be made this year.

Of course, the president is very skilful in saying everything to everyone.

However, there is cynicism that is shown whenever the president outlines big ideas.

This is because people have realised that governments often adopt long term plans – that often take names such as Vision 2055 – to avoid having to account on daily policy shortfalls that people must live with.

If government cannot repair a 200-metre stretch of road which is quite urgent, why should anyone believe it will successfully build a bridge?

In a moment such as this, where people are becoming doubtful about government’s capacity to deliver mega projects, the best way to restore confidence is to focus on simple projects that can be delivered upon in the short term.

This requires the president committing to a timeline as to what progress will be made by when this year. Small projects are measurable, and they can be delivered upon within a short space of time.

A good State of the Nation Address should be such that people know exactly what will be done.

If, after the president’s speech, we have to wait for the budget for clarity, that would mean that the speech failed to provide direction.

It has become customary recently to wait for the budget speech to clarify what should have been delivered by the State of the Nation Address.

If the budget fails to bring concrete commitments, we then wait for another event on our political calendar, namely the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), which is delivered later in the year.

If the MTBPS fails to bring clarity, the cycle of uncertainty and perpetual waiting continues as we then have to look toward the next State of the Nation Address the following year.

The cycle repeats itself again and again, in perpetuity.

I hope that this year the SONA spells out concrete commitments even if that entails small measurable projects.

– Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn.

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