President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 20 June. The speech was filled with rousing language as well as conciliatory offers to work together with members of the opposition. Unfortunately, no new details of his ostensible reform agenda were released, including details of how his dream for South Africa will come about.
South Africa does not lack for promises from politicians. If the President thought that this is what we needed, then his advisors didn’t do their job. President Zuma, for instance, promised to halve unemployment by 2019 and have the economy growing at more than 5%. Of course, conveniently, the promise was made for after the end of his term in office. President Ramaphosa has also made promises to be fulfilled after his second and last term (10 years from now), presuming he does get a second term.
The promises themselves are good visions for the future. It is important to dream and set ambitious goals. We do that in our own lives; the difference being that we do not allow ourselves to entertain any dream unless we are willing to put in the hard work to achieve it. Otherwise, it’s simply a fantasy and it will never happen.
The President seemed to be suffering under no such constraints. He promised to create 2 million jobs for young people while simultaneously boasting about the National Minimum Wage that he negotiated with unions and big business, which keeps people out of work. He also promised that every 10-year old will be able to read with understanding, yet nothing was said about how he will convince the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) to allow a teacher meritocracy.
We were promised that economic growth will significantly outpace growth in population, effectively referring to a high GDP per capita growth. In 2017 this was 0.1%, while for Rwanda it was 3.5%. The President did not give any indication that South Africa will be embarking on the type of free market reforms that the Rwandan government instituted to surpass South Africa in the Economic Freedom of the World index.
A vision of the future is important but visions that are only meant to come into fruition when the visionary is no longer in office, especially when no credible plan is presented, should be looked at with suspicion. Why can’t the President mention a few of the reforms that are needed to achieve some of these dreams? Is it the case that we, the people who vote for him, cannot be trusted, or rather that we do not matter enough? It is easy to make promises about that on which no one can hold you to account.
We can’t really blame politicians for treating us with contempt, however, as citizens have shown great reluctance in holding them accountable. The President knows that he can keep making promises and he doesn’t need to fulfill any of them, in the same way that Zuma did.
It would be great for South Africa to achieve the goals set out in the President’s five promises – a new smart city would be impressive. The brutal fact is that current policies will achieve the very opposite. That is why the Free Market Foundation champions the policies that can achieve these ideals. School vouchers, for instance, would not exclude any poor person and would also provide a market incentive to make sure that all 10-year olds can read for understanding. Yet government is not even considering vouchers.
The government keeps telling us that it is looking for constructive criticism. That is exactly what free marketeers do, but we get ignored. Then something goes wrong and the free market is blamed. The fact is that President Ramaphosa did not announce anything to radically alter South Africa’s statist, collectivist paradigm.
The government sounds, for all intents and purposes, as if it is going to continue doubling down on the policies that have failed South Africa for the last few decades. Ordinary people will continue to be threatened since they are not trusted. We see this in the fact that the President’s speech was all about government doing things for us, and nothing about us doing things for ourselves with government stepping out of the way. That, more than anything else, has doomed the President’s 10-year promises, and this is only the first week.
By Mpiyakhe Dhlamini, a data science researcher at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Free Market Foundation.