Debate on the State of the Nation Address


National Assembly: 18 February 2020


Honourable Speaker; Your Excellency the President; Honourable Members.

On the 8th of January 1912, several hundred learned men gathered in Bloemfontein to chart a course to liberation. In their midst was but one woman, Mrs Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke. It is that woman whom I quote today.

She said, “This work is not for yourselves. Kill that spirit of self and do not live above your people; but live with them. And if you can rise, bring someone with you.”

This year we commemorate the 150th birthday of Mrs Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke. We also celebrate the 30th anniversary of Madiba’s release. With these anniversaries, and many more, we are inclined to consider the state of our nation against the original dream. Has it been achieved? Have we come far enough? Is this the country we imagined?

The theme for this 6th Parliament is well chosen: “Following up on our commitments to the people”. It is clear that some of the commitments made in 1994, and repeated ever since, are yet to be fulfilled. It is not that Government has done nothing to fulfil them, but that the good work started has not been completed.

The great tragedy is that our work has not followed a linear course. Our work, our commitments, our intentions and our plans have been thoroughly waylaid by what Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke called “the spirit of self”. Leaders living above the people, enriching themselves.

We find ourselves now in desperate times, with an economy all but collapsing. Corruption has brought us here. It is not that South Africa is without hope, potential or assets. As the President said, there is “unbounded potential”. The root of our problem is described in Proverbs chapter 13, verse 23: “Abundant food is in the fallow ground of the poor, but it is swept away by injustice.”

This is quite literally true. Mr President; there are around 40 000 commercial farms in South Africa, feeding a population of some 55 million. Of course we need to talk about land reform and social justice.

But as we navigate an economic crisis, we must consider food security as a matter of urgency.

Unless we empower rural communities to produce food, for themselves and for market, our people are staring into the eyes of starvation. I am not being overdramatic. Where there is poverty, unemployment and reliance on an unsustainable social grant system, the basic needs of food, water, shelter and electricity automatically take centre stage.

Your Excellency; I wonder whether anyone on the street could articulate Government’s three major projects to stimulate our economy. Does anyone know or understand what is being done? Or do they still wonder if anything is being done?

The chasm that exists between our people’s lived experience and our Government’s programmes, policies and intentions, is damaging. It is this that the IFP sought to protect against when we engaged constitutional negotiations.

Prior to 1994, when parties gathered around the negotiating table, the IFP took a stand for the devolution of powers, to bring resources and decision-making closer to the people.

We sought to decentralise governance, precisely to avoid what South Africa has now: a government where all the power and resources are held at the top, in the hands of a few.

Local government is the first point of contact, and generally the only point of contact, between the people and their government. It is at the level of local government that the basic needs of our people are properly understood, measured and attended to.

It is municipalities that address the bread and butter issues, like water, electricity and food production. And yet we have, across our country, municipalities that cannot even provide water to their communities, because municipalities are at the mercy of those higher up who control the allocation of infrastructure grants.

While national government holds the purse-strings in an iron grip, local government is being starved and suffocated. We need to get the money down to where it is needed; to where it is used to meet our people’s immediate and basic needs.

This is best practice in any democratic system, but more so in a time of severe economic crisis. It is time to empower local government. Unless power is decentralised away from the top, corruption will continue to eat away at the resources intended for our people.

We meant it when we said, “Let the people govern”.

Your Excellency; when you spoke last Thursday one could not help but feel that we were being told the truth at last. The stark reality you described of economic stagnation, deepening unemployment, an energy crisis and severe poverty, was honest. It stood in sharp contrast to the SONAs we were subjected to for a full decade, where the false narrative was spun that “there is a good story to tell”.

We appreciate hearing the truth. But we cannot avoid the obvious question: Why did this Government not tell us the truth before, as the President has now done? Why did it avoid the truth for years and years, until South Africa was reduced to such dire circumstances that untruths were no longer possible?

Mr President, you described everything that has been done in the last two years to try to put our country back on track, but you lamented, “It has not been enough”. Sadly, it was never going to be enough. South Africa was taken too far in the wrong direction. Economic recovery will take years, and it depends on a multitude of factors.

So when our President describes billions of Rands’ worth of projects, I have to ask, “Where will these billions come from?” The Director General in the Treasury has told us that the coffers of State are empty. SOE bailouts have depleted our resources; the very SOEs that the President admits have endured years of corruption, mismanagement and State capture.

Surely we are talking about treason.

Yet there have been no arrests. The President simply says that the work of the Zondo Commission is continuing. Will we ever see arrests and convictions? Or will this be another Umzimvubu Dam; spoken about year after year, with very little to show for it.

There are many conversations that have been going on for years with little to show for it. The problem of high data costs is one of them. We appreciate the indication that this is finally going to change. But when? We need a timeframe, lest our people lose hope.

Another conversation that began years ago, with the late Honourable Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, is the medical use of cannabis. I want to personally thank you, Your Excellency, for the commitment to formulate policy, this year.

May I urge you please to go further into what our late colleague tabled. It is essential that South Africa become a centre of medical innovation and research. If we fail to consider innovative treatment for Cancer alone, the NHI will collapse almost instantly.

It was also the late Hon. Dr Ambrosini who, more than a decade ago, warned the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Economic Development and the President that the speed at which our country’s debt was growing had become unsustainable. It worries me that only now, in 2020, is the President saying that our debt is (in quotes) “heading towards unsustainable levels”. South Africa carries a debt burden that we have no way of repaying, and we have no plan on how to repay it.

In these dire circumstances, it is absolutely true that Government cannot rescue South Africa on its own, even if – as the President said – it did everything it was able to do. There must be partnerships and social compacts. I have often said that we will either swim together, or sink together. Social cohesion is vital at this point.

Ironically, the EFF gave us a valuable lesson last week. They proved that diverse people can be united when faced with a shared problem. I agree with our Chief Whip that the Joint Rules need to be revisited to close the door to the kind of embarrassing display we endured last week.

In a time of such volatility and uncertainty, our people do not need panem et circenses. We need integrity, solutions and justice.

I thank you.