Debate on the State of the Nation Address

Remarks by
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Founder and President Emeritus of the Inkatha Freedom Party

National Assembly: 16 February 2021

Honourable Speaker; Your Excellency the President; Honourable Members.

When we rose to debate the state of our Nation one year ago, we were debating a different country. That was not South Africa as we now know it. It was South Africa pre-Covid-19. We stand now on the other side, devastated by loss, and scrambling with the rest of the world to find a way out of this pandemic.

Tragically, the South Africa that went into this pandemic was already in crisis.

At last year’s SONA, Your Excellency bravely pulled back the curtains on the window-dressing of our so-called “good story”. You pointed to the stark reality of economic stagnation, deepening unemployment, an energy crisis and severe poverty. You lamented that, despite everything that had been done to try to put our country back on track, it was not enough.

With what can rightly be called 20/20 hindsight, that was a devastating moment to reveal defeat; for we were about to be plunged into a new battle that would decimate both our resources and our hope.

Nevertheless, we are grateful that Government went into this battle under no illusions. The Director General in the Treasury had told us that the coffers of State were empty. We were no longer pretending that this country can go on as though resources are endless.

The problem, Your Excellency, is the same problem I pointed to in last year’s debate. The problem is corruption. I know it. You know it. South Africa knows it.

Despite the admission that South Africa is in economic crisis, there were still those who saw in a pandemic the chance to get rich.

The level of corruption and fraud that has assailed our fight against Covid-19 is unthinkable. It is seen by the world and felt by our people. With every death, a finger of blame falls on corruption. It is not merely Covid-19 we are fighting.

Yet I suspect that our fight against Covid-19 has a greater chance of success than our fight against corruption, and that is a terrible indictment.

South Africa has repeatedly raised concerns at the World Health Organisation. In May 2020 they warned that our leaders should not politicise this pandemic and engage in corruption. Now they are worried about our decision to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine.

We are racing against time. Our people are desperate for a vaccine. We are pleased to hear that the first 80 000 doses will arrive this week. But in a country of almost 60 million people, it offers little hope. How will the vaccine be accessed by ordinary people? When will it be available? In the absence of details, and in the presence of corruption, our nation has very little trust.

I must repeat the insistent call for the vaccine rollout tender process to be overseen by Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts. Parliament must be enabled to perform its constitutional responsibility of oversight. We must halt the ‘business as usual’ of maladministration and fraud.

Honourable Speaker, Your Excellency; I am not a fan of the decision to keep the theme for SONA 2021 the same as the theme for 2020. It suggests that everything has been put on hold over the past year, and that this is acceptable. Of course the pandemic has demanded our focus. But for our people, it has not been possible to put life on hold.

Poverty has not halted its onslaught, waiting for the pandemic to be over. Hunger will not abate. Disease will not be paused. We cannot wait for the day that our masks come off before we deal with the struggles of our people.

Mere hopes and expectations are not enough. How does Government predict a strong recovery in employment by the end of the year, when further lockdowns are unpredictable? Even Your Excellency hesitated when saying this, as though thinking, “By when? The end of the year?”

Even once the labour market has recovered from the pandemic, it must still recover from the past 26 years of indecisive economic policy. We have a long road ahead of us indeed.

Turning to Local Government, the SABC News headline spoke volumes. It read: “RAMAPHOSA SAYS THE DAYS OF MESSING UP ARE OVER”. Finally municipalities will be staffed with people who can actually do the job. If this were WhatsApp, Honourable colleagues, we would put an emoji right here.

Unfortunately, training courses and programmes will not magically create ethics in the civil service. To create a civil service that prides itself on ethical integrity, one needs to make integrity a job requirement, together with competence.

This brings us back to corruption. The Zondo Commission has shown us much more than a compromised criminal justice system. It has left us questioning how deeply the rot actually goes.

Government is now in the unenviable position of having to resuscitate an economy that was already headed for the trauma ward before Covid-19. How will it perform the balancing act of reviving the economy while pouring resources into the fight for lives?

In this moment, our thoughts naturally turn to the many who have suffered loss; the deeply painful loss of loved ones, as well as the loss of income and opportunity.

We stand in solidarity with all those in the tourism and hospitality industry, as well as with our performing artists, whose very livelihood has been devastated. As we mourn the loss of greats like Dr Sibongile Khumalo, Mr Joseph Shabalala and Ms Mary Twala, let us not neglect the greats of tomorrow.

There are many who deserve our thanks for what they have done over the past year, and for what they continue to do under extreme circumstances. I want to thank every teacher who is back in the classroom, despite risk or fear. I want to thank all our frontline workers, those in essential services, and particularly our healthcare workers, including mental health.

I also want to thank those who support our healthcare workers; organisations like CHIVA Africa which, under the leadership of Dr Karyn Moshal, is supporting our rural healthcare workers as they continue to fight HIV/Aids in the midst of the pandemic.

As a nation, we must thank the Serum Institute of India for its commitment to making Covishield available to the developing world. It seems almost prescient now, Your Excellency, that I urged you in last year’s SONA debate to equip South Africa to become a centre of medical innovation and research.

We have great capacity and skills available in our country. Both now and beyond this pandemic, we must empower our scientists, researchers and innovators.

My deepest wish is that future generations will look back on this time as the darkest night that preceded the dawn; or as the President put it, the fire before new life blooms. May there be new life for South Africa. It can still happen. We can bring it to pass. But it is going to take a shared effort with every one of us being afforded a role to play. South Africans deserve nothing less than the right to participate in the making of our future.

Your Excellency, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without pleading with you again to resume our discussions on reconciliation between the ANC and IFP. This too cannot be placed on hold, awaiting the end of the pandemic.

With every funeral I attend, I fear that we are losing the men and women who knew the truth about the past. Will the truth die with them? Or will we do what must be done, within my lifetime?

Finally, I wish to thank you, Mr President, for your good wishes to His Majesty the King of the Zulu Nation. We are all pleased by His Majesty’s strong recovery.

I thank you.