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Ramaphosa: “I wanna lend a hand. Send me”

South Africa's new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, delivered his maiden State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Friday, 16 February – after he had been in office for just over 24 hours. It was optimistic and upbeat, something South Africans really needed after a gruelling 10 days.

South Africans had to wait for SONA this year, it had been postponed because a transition of power was taking place after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) decided to recall former president Jacob Zuma. But for many, it was worth the wait.

The new president delivered an articulate speech in which he was ambitious and optimistic. He invited all South African's to play a role in building the South Africa Nelson Mandela dreamed of. Ramaphosa tried to be inclusive and offered a united vision for the country.

Poignantly, he ended his address by quoting from world-renowned and recently deceased jazz artist, Bra Hugh Masakela. He received a standing ovation after he quoted the last lines of the song:

“I wanna lend a hand. Send me.”

Masekela's song, Thuma Mina, “anticipated a day of renewal, of new beginnings,” Ramaphosa said. Those familiar with the Bible would know that these are the words spoken by Isaiah the prophet in response to God sending him to the people of Israel who, themselves, are a struggling nation (Isaiah 6:8). Ramaphosa urged all South Africans saying: “Now is the time for each of us to say ‘send me’. Now is the time for all of us to work together, in honour of Nelson Mandela, to build a new, better South Africa for all.”

While there are many questions that need to be asked, for example he did not give too many specifics or offer clear steps for implementation, he seemed to hit the right tone on many issues that have plagued the country. For the first time in a few years, South Africans witnessed a SONA that was not interrupted, noisy, violent or chaotic.

Here are five takeaways from President Ramaphosa's address:

  • A great deal has to be done to undo the mess that the country’s economy is in. This includes growing the economy, attracting foreign investment and dealing with unemployment – especially amongst the millions of unemployed youth. Ramaphosa plans to do this by holding a jobs summit and an investment conference. He said that he will set up a presidential economic advisory council to “draw on the expertise and capabilities that reside in labour‚ business‚ civil society and academia”. He wants both the public and private sector to work together in order for this to become a reality. He said that land expropriation without compensation would be pursued in a way that does not jeopardise production and food security.
  • The country has to deal with poverty alleviation more effectively. He personally assured South Africa’s poorest that the social grants system would not fail them. He promised a number of things which have a direct impact on the poor: a free basic services programme, an improvement in basic education and free tertiary education for “first year students from households with a gross combined annual income of up to R350,000.” He also announced the convening of a social sector summit this year and he promised the poor better service delivery.
  • The rooting out of corruption in both the public and the private sector. “We urge professional bodies and regulatory authorities to take action against members who are found to have acted improperly and unethically,” Ramaphosa said. He said that law enforcement institutions must be “strengthened” so as to “shield them from external interference or manipulation.” He also promised to attend “urgently” to issues at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) so as to “ensure that this critical institution is stabilised and [is] able to perform its mandate unhindered”. Ramaphosa ensured South Africa that a commission of enquiry into state capture will go ahead, presided over by Deputy Chief Justice, Judge Raymond Zondo.
  • Sorting out State Owned Enterprises and the country’s revenue service – which is down on collection. “We will also take steps to stabilise and strengthen vital institutions like the South African Revenue Service. We must understand that tax morality is dependent on an implicit contract between taxpayers and government that state spending provides value for money and is free from corruption.” At the heart of State Capture has been the looting of SOEs – these include the country’s electricity provider, Eskom. Ramaphosa said “Many of our state owned enterprises are experiencing severe financial, operation and governance challenges, which has impacted on the performance of the economy and placed pressure on the fiscus. We will intervene decisively to stabilise and revitalise state owned enterprises.” He said that SOEs “cannot borrow their way out of their financial difficulties, and we will therefore undertake a process of consultation with all stakeholders to review the funding model of SOEs and other measures.” He also said that board members of SOEs will be removed from any role in procurement.
  • The new president promised that government would evaluate its effectiveness – hinting at a smaller cabinet. He urged public servants to do things efficiently, diligently and timeously, urging them to become “agents of change”. He said that he would visit government departments to engage senior leadership and ensure that all are working effectively and that all are aligned. He signalled zero tolerance for inefficiency and bad administration.

Spotlight will soon offer a more detailed and critical analysis of the SONA, looking at it especially from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.