The Beyond Just Us Blog

The President must be clearer

In two months’ time, President Cyril Ramaphosa will have been the country’s president for two years, having assumed office on 15 February last year following the resignation of then president Jacob Zuma the day before.

When things are tough a moment in time feels like eternity. You’ll agree with me that it actually feels like Ramaphosa has been president forever. There are even those who believe it’s been downhill since then. But has it?

Many people who feel it’s been downhill since then are disappointed with the lack of progress in holding alleged state capture perpetrators accountable.

No one is wearing orange overalls yet, they moan. And it looks like no one ever will despite the millions of rands poured into the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, they seem to dejectedly believe.

Alleged private sector criminals are also said to be having a good time, with no loss of face or any sign they will ever go to jail.

Among those cited are people implicated in the Steinhoff scandal that chipped away billions of rands in public servants’ pension funds invested in the company by the Public Investment Corporation.

Not much progress seems visible in addressing alleged criminality regarding the sinking of the VBS Bank that wiped out millions in life savings of the poorest Gogo Dlaminis. The sluggish economy is another pebble in people’s shoes. Each time Stats SA releases quarterly reports, economic growth seems to be taking an uninterrupted nosedive while unemployment is rapidly shooting up. Poverty also seems on an interrupted rise, the figures currently standing at 55.5% for all groups nationally, disaggregated to 64.2% for indigenous Africans, about 39% for coloureds, 5.9% for Asians and 1% for whites.

The investment front has provided less than cold comfort. Two investment conferences accompanied by much promise and hope did not deliver as billed. The constant fear of the country being downgraded to junk status is the sword of Damocles that adds its own flavour of disappointment bordering on despair. Then there is “Eishkom”, the moniker given to the country’s power utility Eskom due to the number of disappointments it has inflicted on the nation through its load- shedding episodes. The randomness of its load shedding, with all the fuzzy logic behind each explanation, compounds things.

After all that has been learnt since the first major energy interruption, people ask why there’s still no energy security strategy. Why the piecemeal approach? Aren’t operations managers engineers who should have conducted a systems audit and employed systems thinking for a lateral solution?

No analysis of governance challenges can be complete without a word on the public-funds-guzzling state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Key among the problem children have been SAA, PRASA and the SABC. The spectre of corruption compounds matters with people concerned at the lack of consequence management translating into impunity.

It this regard many would like to see more integrity enforcement at political-party level.

For the poor though, all of the above seem extra and optional. Their key concern is excruciating poverty and its assault on their human dignity and development. Job losses in the mining and banking sectors, due to fourth industrial revolution automation, is a compounding factor.

Where is the constitutionally promised freed potential and improved quality of life for all? Many asked this at the Thuma Foundation Democracy Festival in Maboneng in Johannesburg on the eve of Reconciliation Day.

Statistics don’t do justice to the ugly reality of poverty. They don’t show the hunger for food and for dignity, the hunger to be seen and, above all, the hunger for hope. I saw the face of poverty during my tenure as the Public Protector.

I see the face of poverty regularly as we visit villages and townships under the Thuma Foundation-Stellenbosch University Siyazakhela Enterprising Communities and Social Justice M-Plan initiatives.

Is it fair to say the Ramaphosa administration has been on a downhill journey? I don’t think so. It is better to be slow going in the right direction than to go fast in the wrong direction. No one can honestly say we are heading in the wrong direction.

Regarding state capture, Ramaphosa gave the Zondo commission all the financial and moral support it needed. Actually, more money has been spent than ever imagined. Regarding the orange overalls, the president’s involvement would be unjust and a violation of the constitutionalism principle of the separation of powers. We must agree that anything more than appointing, resourcing and supporting a competent national public prosecutions director would be overreaching.

What about Eskom and the other SOEs? Measures are being taken to reinforce leadership and detoxify the system. The truth is that where there’s a mess; there’s inertia at the start of the process of moving forward. Is that what we’re witnessing? Probably. But I do believe here, systems thinking and a more forward-looking approach is needed.

Wet coal is predictable and so is ageing infrastructure. Where is the energy security strategy? Why has it not picked up ageing infrastructure?

This is an operations management challenge and those responsible should be held accountable.

What about sabotage? Not managing a predictable risk can be a form of sabotage. We should also be vigilant about real sabotage.

The coincidence of load shedding with developments in the political landscape has been questionable. We need a much clearer long-term strategy for all SOEs. A related matter is a need for policy. The stop-gap measures don’t only make the nation nervous but might entail a transactional approach with an unintended long- term impact.

A public policy process also provides opportunities to crowdsource ideas beyond what’s on the table between government, SOE leadership and the few consulting or business elites that have access.

For example, the SOEs might not need to be privatised but have operations outsourced like Gautrain, said a Gautrain executive. Funding could also come from selling special public bonds.

A matter Ramaphosa has been consistent on is confidence-building leadership. He has not taken the low road of divide and rule or playing the victim. He has also been a promise-keeper, even on matters in which the buck was passed by the previous administration without policy frameworks. For example, he has stoically found ways to deliver on #FeesMustFall promises and the land question.

He has also been consistent on the non-negotiability of social justice as a bridge to sustainable growth and the reconciliation envisaged in the Constitution. We’ve also seen some consistency in rebuilding South Africa’s tattered global reputation. I do hope though that the president will step up and be a lot clearer on policy and more deliberate in involving the public in mapping the road ahead.

This not only limits elite capture but is more confidence inspiring while presenting opportunities for crowdsourcing solutions. I also hope there’ll be clearer and deliberate messaging on UN Sustainable Development Goals and the role of business and society in achieving these, particularly ending poverty and striking a blow against generational inequality.

I hope the next State of the Nation Address will outline a clearer vision of the democracy and political economy we are establishing and related policy pathways, including the future of SOEs.

Thuli Madonsela is professor and Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, and founder of the Thuma Foundation and Social Justice M-Plan.

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By Prof Thuli Madonsela
Published 26 December 2019

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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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