SONA and the fading power of rhetoric

If the words one speaks too often fail to change one’s reality, the power of even the most astute or inspirational speaker will soon fade


Rhetoric is important. Words can change the world. A parliament in its very etymology is a place for speech, or parley, where the people’s representatives can do business together.

And parliamentary business, or speech, has indeed transformed countries and our world, for good and ill. South Africa is no exception.

But as Aristotle famously noted in his work, Rhetoric, a speaker’s use of logic and pathos in making their case and garnering support for their cause must always be embedded in the credibility (or ethos) of the speechmaker and his or her setting.

On Thursday, 7 February this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa, did indeed deliver a rousing and compelling State of the Nation Address (SONA). It was generally well-received, including by those whose actions indicate positive or negative market sentiment.

He began reflectively, noting the 25th anniversary of our new dispensation this year: “During the course of this year, we must and will reflect on the journey of the last 25 years. As South Africans, we will have to ask ourselves whether we have realised the promise of our nation’s birth.

“We must spend this year, the 25th anniversary of our freedom, asking ourselves whether we have built a society in which all South Africans equally and without exception enjoy their inalienable rights to life, dignity and liberty.”

Yes, the President seemed to acknowledge, the past has not been easy. He went so far as to subtly critique the Zuma years as “a period of uncertainty and a loss of confidence and trust”, and as a period that, hopefully, came to an end with the advent of his administration: “A year ago, we set out on a path of growth and renewal.

“We resolved to cure our country of the corrosive effects of corruption and to restore the integrity of our institutions.”

Such words are bolder than they seem at first glance. We almost have a disavowal of the Zuma rhetoric of the “good story” of the ANC years. Perhaps not quite a mea culpa but still an acknowledgement at least that the ruling party has to be much better than it has been if South Africa is to emerge from the shadows that are threatening our hopes of shared prosperity.

In this regard, he even alluded to the famous words of John F. Kennedy at his inaugural speech, linking the call of ‘Thuma Mina’ to JFK’s call to service, stating that one year ago, “South Africans asked not what can be done for them, but what they could do for their country.”

A turning point?

However, is it true that a turning point has been achieved in the yet-to-be-written history of the future?

In the days following SONA, Ipsos released the results of a poll, which had gauged South Africa’s confidence in the economic stewardship of its government. Sixty per cent of the country believes the government is mismanaging the economy.

However, it must be noted that one year prior, 75% of South Africans, according to Ipsos, had levelled the charge of governmental negligence.

Unfortunately, the notion of a turning point in 2018 is not underscored by the hard economic data.

Statistics South Africa has declared that the economic growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018 was below 1%. Ramaphosa had declared his aim to be 3%.

But even 3% is not nearly enough. A minimum growth of 5% is required simply to begin solving the problem of an unemployment rate that’s creeping closer to 30%. Yet, the Reserve Bank and the Treasury have only forecasted growth of 0.7% for 2019.

Yes, the rand, bonds and stocks seem to be holding steady in the wake of SONA, and general rates of corporate debt are lower than their counterparts in developed nations, primed for investment and a growth environment.

However, a large part of that optimism is probably owing to the increased optimism of a trade agreement between China and the United States, as well as the fact that our load shedding troubles have already been priced in by the market.

As for hopes of an imminent growth environment, these have been stoked by Ramaphosa’s visible campaign to attract foreign investment and, thus, spur local investment too.

He touted his government’s achievements in this regard: “In 2017, we recorded an inflow of foreign direct investment amounting to R17 billion.

“Official data shows that just in the first three quarters of 2018, there was an inflow of R70 billion.

“This is a phenomenal achievement compared to the low level of investment in the previous years. As we speak, projects to the value of R187 billion are being implemented, and projects worth another R26 billion are in the pre-implementation phase.”

The problem of structural barriers to growth

Simply, the rhetoric of openly seeking such investment has boosted market sentiment. The impressive record of actually garnering such capital inflow is, of course, admirable and very positive.

Business Unity South Africa (Busa) applauded this pro-growth rhetoric.

“The speech is unequivocal in sketching SA’s national priorities and unambiguous about its policy direction, as well as setting the country on the course to become a dynamic future-oriented economy.

“We also appreciate the President’s establishment of a commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” noted Sipho Pityana, Busa’s President.

However, no speech on its own can break down the barriers to growth and employment that have become entrenched in the South African economy.

There is also a concern that the President, and our elected Parliament, simply may not have the capacity or power to demolish such barriers.

Such a concern leads to a quiet uneasiness, even on the part of those who admire our President’s efforts to drive the country forward, that the task ahead may simply be too overwhelming, even for a government that is actively working towards such goals.

Eskom: the spectre of state failure

One word sums up this anxiety: Eskom. Eskom represents corruption and the spectre of a consequently failed and powerless state.

Ramaphosa’s speech promised drastic intervention in the case of Eskom—an unbundling of the state-owned enterprise into three distinct entities. He also spoke of the decisive efforts at improving the corporate governance of all parastatals.

But only days later, the lights went out and South Africa heard the shocking news that Eskom, which is over R400 billion in debt, will cease to operate within months without further intervention.

Yet, at the same time, Ramaphosa had to do damage control with the unions concerned, assuring them that no jobs would be lost—even at an entity that has lost more money than the majority of our citizens could even begin to fathom.

It was left to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to announce in his budget speech on 20 February that the state would be injecting R69 billion into the power utility, on certain conditions—the most notable being that Mboweni and the Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, would soon appoint a Chief Reorganisation Officer for the SOE.

Reorganisation may be a euphemism for what is required at this most pivotal institution, and for South African economic development.

Ultimately, no rhetoric and no sense of public trust in any leader can ease the sense of anxiety on the public’s part at the thought of such an entity being so indebted, and so dysfunctional.

Thus, the question of whether the clarion call of ‘Thuma Mina’ will be remembered in the years to come will ultimately depend on Ramaphosa’s ability to do something beyond speech, something without much precedent.

Quite simply, he needs to turn an entire country around. 

Chris Waldburger

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