The State of the Nation (Sona) address was like a Rorschach test, with President Cyril Ramaphosa the nation’s avuncular psychiatrist.
What was this Sona before our eyes? Was this water for our parched throats? Or was it just another politically conjured mirage?
Like psychologically troubled patients decoding ambiguous inkblots, we earnestly tried to discern in the president’s vaguely sketched air castles and careful non-specifics our national gestalt. Each would respond according to need – the weary would see succour, the frightened would find reassurance and the sceptical gaze into a chilling void.
In this, his third Sona in just 18 months, CR chose to proclaim “a dream”. We need “to cast our sights on the broadest of horizons”.
There’s nothing wrong with that. After a decade of disaster and gloom, we could do with some optimism and encouragement. And as politicians worldwide, throughout history, have instinctually known, the “vision thing” is important in changing the national mood.
In 1940, Winston Churchill promised that if everyone rallied to the cause, the world would “move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”. In the darkest hours of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech enlisted much of America.
Unfortunately, CR’s dream skirts big, existential issues. Forget about addressing an increasingly divided nation tearing itself apart, what most fires the imagination of the president is a bullet train that will traverse the country. To be precise, from Musina to Cape Town, via Pretoria and Buffalo City.
Oh, and please, Father Christmas, a new “smart city … founded on the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution”.
There were other parts to the dream. Few came with any semblance of a plan as to how they would be implemented.
Crime will be halved within a decade. International tourism will double by 2030, Eskom will be rescued. The Reserve Bank will remain independent. Very soon, every child “will be able to read for meaning”. Our economy will grow faster than our population.
Less ambitiously, the government will cut data costs and build digital hubs for innovating youngsters. It will also build fresh produce marketplaces for their old-fashioned parents.
Sona came with “10 priorities” and “five goals”. The National Development Programme (NDP), launched with much fanfare in 2012, has been dusted off and again placed on the table.
To actually realise the NDP’s Vision 2030, Ramaphosa concedes, will take “extraordinary measures”. Fortunately, he reassures us, the government’s medium-term strategic framework has “more than 1,100 indicators” by which the ANC will measure its success.
It was a professional purveyor of belief who most convincingly called out Ramaphosa on his many visions and dreams. Lay pastor Mmusi Maimane, whose day job is leading the DA, was scathing. While Ramaphosa had been dreaming, South Africans were “living in a nightmare”. Sona was “rhetoric without substance”.
To me, the most interesting aspect of all of Sona’s verbiage was a throwaway sound bite.
“The days of boycotting payment are over,” said Ramaphosa. “We must assert the principle that those who use electricity must pay for it.”
If implemented, that would contradict 25 years of the government’s inability to do anything that might alienate its core constituency.
We’ll hold you to that, Mr President.