President Cyril Ramaphosa knows the art of saying what people want to hear. In Thursday’s SONA, he openly contradicted himself to please opposing interests. It was full of sound and fury, but signified nothing.

On Thursday night, we were treated to the soporific sound of almost two hours of droning on about the dreadful state of the nation, and how everything was going to be wonderful in no time flat.

In his longest State of the Nation Address (SONA) to date, president Cyril Ramaphosa said something to make everyone happy. That’s what he does. The surprise is that anyone believes him. 

From the day he delivered his first SONA, in 2018, he has been speaking with a forked tongue. He says something to please one constituency, and mere minutes later, contradicts himself to please another constituency. 

He’ll make earnest-sounding pronouncements about how seriously government takes the country’s various problems, but will announce no concrete plans. 

That is Ramaphosa’s shtick. At heart, he’s an old-school ‘developmental state’ socialist, pursuing the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution (NDR). 

As chief negotiator for the ANC during the transition to democracy, he knew how to keep multiple constituencies with conflicting demands happy, though. Please everyone by promising them what they wanted, and don’t take any actions that would offend anyone. He’s the consummate salesperson, selling vapourware.

Cyril the fake free marketeer

‘We all know that government does not create jobs,’ he said. ‘Business creates jobs.’

Everyone who favours free markets, in opposition to the ANC’s developmental state ideology, got excited. He finally gets it!

‘The key task of government is to create the conditions that will enable the private sector – both big and small – to emerge, to grow, to access new markets, to create new products, and to hire more employees,’ he continued.

John Steenhuisen exclaimed that the Democratic Alliance could have given that speech. 

Nobody seemed to remember that just one sentence earlier, he had said: ‘We have been taking extraordinary measures to enable businesses to grow and create jobs alongside expanded public employment and social protection.’

For a start, the ANC has never taken measures to enable businesses to grow and create jobs. Second, the ‘alongside expanded public employment’ directly contradicts the notion that it isn’t government’s responsibility to create jobs.

Forty-five minutes later, Ramaphosa waxed lyrical about the growing number of industry master plans the ANC was creating, the 10 000 people Home Affairs would recruit to digitise paper records (they still have paper records in 2022?!), the 50 000 ‘work opportunities’ created through the Social Employment Fund, and the Presidential Employment Stimulus which has ‘supported over 850 000 opportunities’.

Most of these ‘opportunities’ are nonsense, and the numbers are vastly exaggerated. The vast majority of these ‘opportunities’ do not turn into long-term, stable employment. Most of the rest are entirely unproductive jobs that the economy does not need. 

Almost a decade ago, I wrote about the ‘hidden overemployment crisis’, in reference to the plague of flag wavers who accompany every road or verge maintenance crew. They are paid salaries, when a simple flashing light could have done the job far more efficiently, and saved the economy a fortune.

On Thursday night, Ramaphosa bragged about having employed half a million ‘education assistants’. They appear to be unqualified personal assistants for teachers. This new army of state-employed people, who earn on average less than R4 000 per month, was never needed before, but now costs the fiscus somewhere short of R2 billion. 

Whatever happened to ‘government does not create jobs’? 

Tax burden

If government wants to ‘create an environment in which the private sector can invest and unleash the dynamism of the economy,’ then why did he not announce he would slash the tax burden on both companies and individuals? 

The South African National Defence Force, whose formidable skills are evidently wasted on bake sales and kicking innocent civilians to death, will now be redeployed to build almost 100 bridges a year, using capital that was taxed away from productive industry. 

South Africa’s tax burden is grossly out of line with the rest of Africa, and rivals that of highly prosperous welfare states. To grow and create jobs, the private sector needs to retain the capital that they create, so that this capital can be productively invested. 

Instead of taxing the economy in order to create hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of unproductive jobs that either are not needed at all, or could be done far more efficiently and cost-effectively, Ramaphosa could leave that capital in the private sector, so it can create productive jobs that actually increase national productivity and prosperity 

Red tape

Ramaphosa has been promising to ‘cut red tape’ to improve the ease of doing business in South Afroca since 2019, with no apparent effect. So, to counteract the dozens of government departments creating red tape, he is now proposing to establish a unit in the office of the presidency, staffed with people on Wabenzi-class salaries, to cut the red tape. 

He told an anecdote, which appears to be missing from the official transcript of the speech, about a woman who made dog beds and sold them on the side of the street, but was arrested because she did not have a permit to trade there.

Ramaphosa was astonished that this could happen to someone just trying to earn a living. 

Well, Mr Ramaphosa, the police were just implementing laws created by your government. While it might be surprising to see government policy actually implemented, the responsibility for this red tape lies with you, Mr Ramaphosa. 

That a smaller government would not create the red tape in the first place, or that it would be cheaper to cut red tape at the point where it is created, does not seem to have crossed his mind. 

No, better to appoint a red tape czar, and create another layer of bureaucracy. To Ramaphosa, a bigger government, employing more people on fat-cat salaries, is always better.

The same goes for his ‘solution’ to the state-owned enterprise (SOE) crisis. Faced with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of mismanaged, captured and failing SOEs,  Ramaphosa’s bright idea is to create a single super-SOE to manage all the other SOEs. Between the ministries in charge of SOEs and the SOEs themselves, he wants a holding company, staffed with loads of highly-paid people holding board meetings and eating canapés. 

Admittedly, it does lighten the load on the ANC’s Deployment Committee. Instead of having to vet every board member and senior executive for every SOE, it now only needs to fill the positions on the SOE Holding Company with loyal cadres, so they can fill the SOE positions with loyal cadres themselves.

How this will improve SOE management, or prevent corruption, is anyone’s guess, but hey, the government creating another fleet of high-paying jobs is a win in Ramaphosa’s books.

Miracle businesses

Ramaphosa’s salesperson-like patter was on full display when he recounted some anecdotal evidence that the R350 ‘social relief of distress grant’ was somehow good for the economy: 

‘Mr Thando Makhubu from Soweto received the R350 grant for seven months last year, and saved it to open an ice-cream store that now employs four people,’ he said. 

‘Mr Lindokuhle Msomi, an unemployed TV producer from KwaMashu Hostel, saved the R350 grant he received for nine months to start a fast food stall and to support his family.’

Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe a word of it. If Makhubu saved R350 for seven months, he’d have R2 450. How do you open an ice-cream store that employs four people with that? If Msomi saved the R350 for nine months, he’d have R3 150. How do you start a fast-food stall with that? And what was Msomi and his family eating for the nine months he was unemployed and saving his R350 monthly grant? And if either of them were in a position to save their R350 social relief of distress grant, they obviously weren’t in distress, and didn’t need a social relief of distress grant in the first place. 

Disinvestment and deindustrialisation

‘We have been taking extraordinary measures to enable businesses to grow and create jobs… we are accelerating the implementation of far-reaching structural reforms to modernise and transform these industries, unlock investment, reduce costs and increase competitiveness and growth… blah, blah, blah, yet another Investment Conference… mobilise new investment…’ and on and on, droned Ramaphosa. 

Yet not a word about the news, announced earlier in the day, that Sapref, the largest crude oil refinery in South Africa, accounting for 35% of the country’s refining capacity, will be shut down next month, with the owners, Shell and BP, hoping to find someone who’ll buy it off them. Let’s be clear: they’re pulling out, even without a buyer in the wings.

Instead of soliciting investment and stimulating reindustrialisation, Ramaphosa is overseeing disinvestment and deindustrialisation. And again, he promised that expropriation was in our future. No wonder the smart money is dumping assets left, right and centre. 

Collective responsibility

Ramaphosa acknowledged, would you believe it, that state capture actually did happen. What a realisation! Who would have thought?

He also acknowledged the report on the institutional failures, from the highest reaches of Cabinet down through the security and police services, in anticipating, preventing and responding to last year’s deadly and destructive riots.

Magnanimously, he said that Cabinet does acknowledge and accept responsibility for the events of July 2021. Collectively, of course. Nobody in particular would be held responsible. Nobody would be fired. 

In any civilised country, the police minister, the minister of state security, and other responsible officials, would have resigned in disgrace if they had let such violent unrest happen with hardly any opposition.

Ramaphosa intends to fill vacancies, employ more police, and ‘make leadership changes in a number of security agencies’. Those removed from their positions will be moved sideways, no doubt. 

Witness the fate of the jet-setting big spender, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who, under a cloud over bribery and corruption, managed to swap jobs with the former Speaker of Parliament, Thandi Modise.

Under the Antigravity National Congress, heads seldom roll, but when they do, they roll uphill. 

Double-talk

At some point, Ramaphosa gave a lecture on why ports must be efficient, because fresh produce could not wait for days or weeks in terminals. I asked my 12-year-old whether he knew fruits and vegetables couldn’t be stored for days or weeks, and he said he had learnt that years ago, in Grade 4. 

What was a president of a country, addressing Parliament and a nation of adults, doing instructing us on the nature of perishables and the necessity of efficient ports? 

He said over several years, the functioning of our ports has declined relative to others. Well, Mr President, whose fault is that? On whose watch did that happen? Why are you telling us this must be fixed? Of course it must be. Don’t explain the details to us like we’re ignorant schoolchildren! Your government caused it! Just go fix it!

With all his double-talk, Ramaphosa pacified the free marketeers and pacified the socialists, both believing that he is on their side, and neither realising that Ramaphosa’s agenda is to please everyone in order to consolidate his own grasp on power.

Ramaphosa impressed only those people who are easily impressed by the oratory of a gifted negotiator, a slick salesperson and a charismatic socialist. 

Politely, a few opposition politicians said that the proof will be in his actions, but who, really, expects action on even a small minority of the items he addressed in his 8 300-word speech.

The country, under Ramaphosa’s leadership, is limping ever-deeper into economic stagnation. Nothing he said convinced me Ramaphosa is capable of changing direction.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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contributor

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.