State of the nation addresses offer government an opportunity to speak directly to its citizens. It can offer reassurances that its policies and actions speak to issues of their greatest concern.
In South Africa, public opinion surveys have repeatedly shown that South Africans rank unemployment, crime and corruption as the three most important issues facing the country. Others include housing and water. In recent years corruption has moved up the list of priorities.
On reflection, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 6th state of the nation address offered an impassioned and detailed account of prospective policy interventions that promise to address these challenges. But to what extent is there scope for remedy? And do South Africans believe that government is up to the task?
The public are disinclined to believe that government can act decisively on critical problem areas. When asked how well or badly government had handled unemployment, crime and corruption, a 2021 survey by Afrobarometer, the independent pan-African surveys network, recorded the worst ratings for the government in these three areas.
Government’s handling of the economy was regarded as “very or fairly bad” by 68% of South Africans – up from 61% in 2018. Similarly, 86% thought government’s handling of job creation was weak. This was up from 76% in 2018. Public perceptions of government’s ability to fight crime were no better. The negative rating rose from 74% in 2018 to 79% in 2021.
Finally, government’s corruption-fighting abilities received a resoundingly pessimistic response by 76% of respondents (from 70% in 2018). This, despite the president’s ostensible support for the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture.
In short, the public’s perception is that government is at its weakest when faced with tackling the most important problems facing the country.
The widening trust deficit between government and citizens motivated Ramaphosa’s focus. With promises to push an inclusive agenda that left no one behind, his objective was to buy sufficient political scope and public support while he focused on rebuilding the state.
Interventions and challenges
To some extent, the public will welcome many of the policy interventions outlined in the president’s speech. The extension of the special COVID-19 relief grant to March 2023 brings immediate reprieve amid high and rising unemployment. It also offers the governing African National Congress (ANC) potential electoral dividends.
A social compact on economic growth, jobs and hunger, the removal of red tape for small businesses, the unbundling of the energy sector, and far reaching structural and economic reforms can only help to remove obstacles to job creation.
However, what the public really wanted to hear is how the president plans to create a conducive political environment for successful policy implementation. Much of South Africa’s progressive legislative and policy framework has unravelled at the door of an executive that is unable to realise the final phase of implementation needed to affect broader economic and social change.
The public has come to realise that, to a large extent, the failings of government can be attributed to an executive arm that is beholden to its governing party, the ANC. The ANC is preoccupied with its internal deployment processes and its own existential interests.
The two recently released reports from the commission of inquiry into state capture starkly illustrate the corrosive effect that corrupt party-state relations have had on the state’s capacity to perform.
A captured and deeply politicised state cannot act in the public’s best interest. The larger political culture that oversees the administration of government action has become, in the eyes of citizens, a corrupt and debilitating political culture. It devastates the state’s ability to deliver on its mandate.
Ramaphosa admitted as much. He recognised government’s culpability in both state capture and in the July 2021 riots. The riots were sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. They devastated parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the country’s two key economic provinces. Over 300 people died.
The most crucial section of his speech was towards the end where he outlined plans to remove political obstacles to effective governance and rebuild a “capable state”. He spoke of deepening the professionalisation of the public service, strengthening anti-corruption measures, fast-tracking corruption-related prosecutions, and leadership changes in the security services.
But without sweeping leadership changes within the executive, the president faces the limitations of cadre deployment – the ANC’s policy of appointing its supporters and leaders to key government institutions, sometimes at the expense of ability – and a culture of mediocrity.
His most wicked challenge of all will be to install a culture of ethics and accountability in public life.
No doubt the president is aware of these constraints. But, in the absence of sweeping leadership changes across key portfolios, he will need to continue to centralise his authority and overrule obstructionist colleagues. He must also be willing to work closely with supportive elements in the private sector and elsewhere to force policy implementation.
As he reminded the nation at the beginning of his speech, trade-offs are essential for a new vision to be realised. To solve South Africa’s economic challenges, the president will need to reprioritise his political challenges. It is critical that he is equally willing to trade his party interests on occasion to avoid further losses.
The threat to democracy
Reviving the capacity of the state is also crucial to shoring up support for democracy in the long term. Democracies cannot exist without popular trust in their institutions and political actors. Citizen confidence and trust in key democratic institutions has plummeted in recent years.
When political trust starts to wane and citizens stop respecting the norms and principles of the democratic process, transitions to democracy can stall or even revert to authoritarianism, leading to a rejection of the democratic regime. Put bluntly, a decline in trust in political actors and institutions will have a detrimental effect on deep-seated support for the democratic regime in the long term.
A policy brief by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, an NGO, released on the eve of the president’s speech, confirmed an acceleration of this trend. It pointed to further declines in satisfaction with democracy over time.
Alarmingly, over two-thirds of South Africans declared in 2021 that they were willing to forgo elections in return for improved service delivery.
In this respect, the president’s pledge to the nation is as much about the durability of the country’s democratic project as it is about setting out short-term policy directives.