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State of the Nation Address 2023: Ramaphosa no longer a credible reformer

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State of the Nation Address 2023: Ramaphosa no longer a credible reformer

CDE executive director Ann Bernstein
CDE executive director Ann Bernstein

1st February 2023

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Prior to the annual State of the Nation Address, the head of one of the country’s leading think tanks, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), has questioned President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability to lead South Africa out of the multiple crises it faces.

“SA is a country with enormous potential, but we are now in deep trouble. A country of multiplying entangled and accelerating crises that significantly degrade our prospects – a polycrisis indeed,” said Ann Bernstein, executive director of CDE.

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“The ANC and its president are stuck. They have failed to modernise their movement into a party of government or to build a leadership core infused with common values, urgency and the experience or expertise to govern effectively and deliver.”

Bernstein argues that it is vital to have a common diagnosis of why we are in this terrible situation. But this must go further than the president’s repeated refrain of “nine wasted years” of the Zuma presidency.

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“An honest diagnosis needs to dig deeper than the President wants to go and include his five years as president. We need to look at bad ideas translated into bad policies, a failed strategy, its terrible consequences, no credible theory of how to change SA and therefore no priorities. The result?  A country in decline driven by crises that are never resolved, but to which the same ‘solutions’ are endlessly applied,” she said.

According to Bernstein, the Ramaphosa presidency is characterised by five “really bad ideas”.  

  • Government’s belief in a developmental state to drive economic growth and transform SA when the state is corrupt and collapsing. 
  • Cadre deployment that puts people in charge of complex state institutions based on party loyalty instead of competence. 
  • A failure to appreciate the power of markets, firms, entrepreneurs to fundamentally change the country and empower millions.  Repeated statements about investment seldom, if ever, translate into policies to facilitate economic growth and employment. More often they are accompanied by actions that prevent growth.
  • A continued commitment to state monopoly companies to provide critical public goods (e.g., electricity, ports, rail), even as they fail, drive up costs and prevent growth and jobs.
  • The misguided belief that SA can be a high wage, high skill economy when we have failed to educate and train our workforce. The result is fewer jobs.

The second cause of SA’s troubles is President Ramaphosa’s commitment to the unity of the ANC above all else.

“Unity with venal thieves is an impossible ambition and has had awful consequences for SA. His cabinet is full of people who cannot do their jobs or have vested interests in a corrupt status quo. The result is a president who says one thing and does another; who says he wants reform but allows anti-reformers, the corrupt or incompetent to stay in power.” 

Even after July 2021’s attempted insurrection he has kept compromised people in his government without anyone being charged with wrongdoing or subjected to disciplinary action.

The President’s failure to choose real priorities is a third cause of South Africa’s decline.

“The Ramaphosa presidency has been characterised by an inability to choose real priorities. He wants growth but he also wants many other things that undermine this claimed priority. There is no set of guiding ideas about how to change SA. What is the theory of social change underpinning this presidency? There is none,” said Bernstein.

This is compounded by the President’s inability to adapt.

“Good leaders ‘learn by doing’. However, with remarkably few exceptions – speech after speech after speech – he tells us how badly the country is doing and then proposes more of the same failed approaches.”

In her analysis, the consequences have been devastating. 

“We have a government without credibility, no leadership, little capacity and no plausible ideas on how to get out of the mess. A cabinet reshuffle will disappoint – the pool of ANC talent is too shallow.” 

“President Ramaphosa presented himself as a reformer and there were many people desperate to believe this. They were ready to separate the man from the party of which he has been a leader and member for over three decades. They believed in the possibility that the chairman of the ANC deployment committee at the height of state capture would do things differently and abandon long standing views and practices. Things have not worked out that way at all. And, even as this optimistic view proved to be an illusion, many have found it difficult to abandon,” she said.

“Sadly, the notion of the current President as a reformer is no longer credible, in fact it is a mirage. The time is long overdue for everyone - citizens, business, organizations, leaders across the board - to think differently and strategically if we are to get the country back on track,” she added.

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