The SONA offered dreams and visions where hard policy choices should have been.

In his state-of-the-nation address last week, Cyril Ramaphosa was frank enough to describe his “smart new city founded on the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution” as a “dream”. Nothing wrong with dreaming dreams or “imagining” a country crisscrossed with bullet trains. 

The trouble is that so much else of the speech also seems to have been founded on dreams. Among them: unleashing private investment, energising the state, introducing a world-class visa regime, putting a stop to electricity payment boycotts, bolstering the mining industry through targeted beneficiation, implementing master plans in various sectors, taking quantum leaps towards the economy of the future, and mobilising the entire nation behind a massive reading campaign. 

Again, nothing wrong with being a visionary. The problem comes when you substitute visions for hard policy decisions. And it is an even bigger problem if you actually believe that your government is capable of putting your visions into practice. 

Mr Ramaphosa was of course absolutely correct to state that “we cannot turn our fortunes around without a relentless focus on economic growth”. The trouble is that 18 months into his presidency there is not much sign that he actually has any such “focus”.    

Mr Ramaphosa said the National Development Plan (NDP), which was adopted in 2012, had to be restored to its place “at the centre of our national effort”. The NDP envisaged reducing unemployment on the strict definition from 25% in 2011 to 14% by 2020. The actual figure on that same definition is now 27.6% – almost exactly double the target. 

The NDP was widely hailed by business and the media when it was launched. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) was almost alone in warning the NDP’s large fan club that they were “clutching at straws”. Two months ago Thabo Mbeki described the NDP as a “thumbsuck”. It was, he said, not a plan but a vision and there was “no plan to implement that vision”. 

Most of the legislation introduced since the NDP has been harmful to the confidence needed to stimulate investment and growth. Even though Mr Ramaphosa last week reiterated his commitment to making the business environment more friendly, there is no sign that any of the harmful legislation is up for repeal. 

Now Mr Ramaphosa is dusting off the failed NDP, with promises about jobs that look like another thumbsuck: two million more young people will be in employment in the next ten years. This is almost four times the number of people between the ages of 15 and 34 who have been absorbed into employment in the last 18 years. 

Last year at his “job summit” in October Mr Ramaphosa listed various “interventions” that would “create” 275 000 jobs a year “over and above” the 300 000 that would have been created without such “interventions”. Nowhere did the “framework agreement” signed after that summit explain how these jobs would be “created”. Now we have another job-creation target without any explanation of how it will be achieved. 

As for Ace Magashule, he stated earlier this month that the national executive committee  of the African National Congress had resolved at its recent lekgotla that unemployment would be reduced from 27.6% to 14% in the next five years. So we are back to the old NDP target. The drop would be achieved by “skilling and reskilling programmes” for 3.5 million young South Africans. In addition, the government would “declare (sic) a three-shift economy to increase the prospects of employment, especially among young people.” A three-shift system “will result in an economy that does not sleep”. 

Whatever other differences there may be between them, when it comes to creating the environment necessary to stimulate investment and the generation of jobs, Messrs Magashule and Ramaphosa seem to be living in similar dreamworlds. 

Conventional wisdom has it that President Ramaphosa is hamstrung by Mr Magashule and all the other enemies and factions out to undermine him. Were it not for them, so we are led to believe, Mr Ramaphosa would be able to implement what Business Day, among others, fondly thinks is his “liberal agenda”. 

However, if the president’s first state-of-the-nation address since he secured his personal mandate in the recent national election is anything to go by, he has no such agenda – as the IRR has said all along. Perhaps the commentariat will now wake up.            

John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR.

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