This is the real state of our nation, delivered by the DA Leader, John Steenhuisen, following weeks touring South Africa, visiting communities, engaging and interacting with South Africans, and listening to their daily challenges and struggles.
Citizens of South Africa
Every morning, as I approach my office in the Marks Building at Parliament, my view down the corridor is dominated by a large portrait of our party’s founding member and first lady of liberalism, Helen Suzman.
She’s the first person I see at work in the morning and the last person I see before I leave. And I’d like to think that, in some small way, her constant presence there reminds us of what we can achieve with the right attitude and the right values.
Much has been written about Helen Suzman’s tenacity and courage in Parliament, where National Party members went out of their way to bully and silence her.
We all know her story – how she refused to be bullied, and how she kept on plugging away with question after question until she got the answers she wanted, and the National Party government was exposed.
Helen Suzman was a hugely impressive individual. When she stood up in the National Assembly, she was standing up for all those who had no voice there. For many she was a direct line to a government that didn’t even want to know they existed.
But arguably her single most impressive characteristic was her burning desire to always know the unfiltered truth. Not the biased news report. Not the hearsay or the rumour. Not the spin.
She was only interested in the truth of the first-hand account.
She saw the propaganda delivered week-in and week-out from the podium of the National Assembly for what it was, and she was having none of it.
Her famous motto was “go see for yourself”. And by tirelessly visiting prisons, townships and funerals, by meeting with banned individuals and by writing and answering thousands of letters, she got to a truth that no one else in Parliament would ever admit to.
Fast-forward many decades later, and it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Our Parliament has once again become a place of fairy tales and spin – where the ruling party will do all it can to present a sugar-coated version of the past, present and future, and hide the ugly truth from the people.
Tomorrow in Parliament you will hear from President Ramaphosa his account of the State of the Nation. And it will be a master class in spin.
If you’ve never witnessed one of his SONA speeches, you may be forgiven for going into this one with naïve expectations. But I sat there and listened to him in 2018, I sat there and listened to him last year, and I know exactly what is coming.
This won’t be our President playing with a straight bat to the nation in a time of great crisis. This won’t be the president taking us into his confidence and spelling out the true extent of our challenges and the tough decisions and sacrifices we will need to make.
No, it will be an hour of downplaying the bad and inventing the good. Of cherry-picking stats to show we’ve somehow turned a corner, and of whimsical dreams of a South Africa he knows in his heart he has no hope of achieving.
Last year it was high-tech cities and speeding bullet trains. What will it be this year? Already he is talking about building a Cape to Cairo highway, while he can’t even get the road to Mthatha fixed.
All this while our economic doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight.
I assure you, what he will present on Thursday evening, amid all the pomp and ceremony of red carpets and designer dresses, will not reflect the real state of our nation.
I already had a fairly good idea of what this was, but inspired and challenged by the woman in the portrait looking down the corridor outside my office, I decided to go and see for myself.
Over the past two weeks I have travelled to every province and spoken to hundreds of people in dozens of communities to get their views on where we stand as a nation. I have been to metros, to townships and to villages. I have met with residents, business owners and farmers.
And all these people I spoke to have two things in common:
One, they are all, in one way or another, victims of this government. Victims of its failure to deliver services, victims of load-shedding, victims of unemployment and victims of the daily crime that government cannot protect them from.
And two, they don’t dwell in their victimhood. All the people I spoke to were resilient and resourceful. They were hustling to get by in the face of indescribable obstacles.
They were surviving despite this government.
I saw people living in the worst possible conditions, but still planting beautiful gardens outside their shacks.
I met with tight-knit communities who look out for each other and share the little they have, because they know their government has long since turned its back on them.
I spoke to a business owner in Kempton Park who is determined to save the jobs of all his employees, despite government threatening to close him down or fine him if he doesn’t fire half the women in his employ for the sake of “gender parity” and a mindless box-ticking exercise.
The people of this country are not the problem.
There is so much extraordinary potential in ordinary South Africans, and they want nothing more than to unlock this potential. They don’t want to remain trapped in serfdom and dependent on hand-outs from the state.
Despite the ANC government’s apparent pride in the size of its social grants programme, this is not a source of pride at all. In fact, 17 million grants each month is a shameful statistic.
People don’t want this. They want dignity, independence and the freedom to choose.
South Africans survive despite what amounts to a daily onslaught from their own government.
Now imagine what we could unleash if we had a government that didn’t kick its people to the kerb day after day. Imagine a government that stood with the people.
Perhaps, instead of “thuma mina” our president should have chosen as his motto: “ndihamba nawe”. Because isn’t that what we need? A government that walks with us.
We know the threat that Eskom, Expropriation Without Compensation and the nationalisation of the health industry hold for our battered economy. I don’t need to spell out the extent of our economic collapse.
Fellow South Africans, we all know the big picture of the crisis we’re in – the massive unemployment, the spiralling national debt, the non-existent growth and the disappearing investment.
But it is where this collapse of government and state touches the lives of individual South Africans that you see the sheer scale of our crisis.
Over the past two weeks I have heard first-hand accounts of how the failure of local and national government has caused untold suffering for people from all walks of life.
These people will not get a mention in the president’s SONA speech.
You will not hear about a community of 2,000 people on the outskirts of Upington that has not one single water tap between them, and have lived like this for the past eight years.
You will not hear of the small businesses that line Mangaung’s Moshoeshoe Street which are now being forced, one by one, to close their doors because the Metro government there has let the street fall into complete disrepair.
You will not hear of the people of Uitenhage who have to wait months and months for someone to come and fix their leaking water pipes, while thousands of litres of precious water run down the streets and form dams in the neighbourhood, in the middle of a drought.
You will not hear of the farmers in Limpopo who had to step up and do government’s job in containing the foot and mouth disease outbreak there, at great personal cost and sacrifice.
You will not hear about the terrible overcrowding in places like Gauteng’s Tembisa Hospital which lead to the deaths of ten babies recently, while not far away the Kempton Park Hospital has stood empty and abandoned for two decades.
Stories like these won’t feature in President Ramaphosa’s summary of where we stand as a country. Because the truth simply doesn’t fit the narrative.
Instead you are bound to hear a laundry list of carefully selected stats, badly disguised PR about government programmes, and plenty of vague forecasts about when and where our missing investments will start to return.
Everything we ever dreamt of will be just around the next bend. You will be asked to give it a little more time – our turnaround is so close you can almost touch it. As it always is, year after year.
But there is something else I suspect you will also hear plenty of. Judging by his recent remarks, I expect President Ramaphosa will use his SONA speech to reiterate his call for the building of a capable state. In fact, I dare you to count the number of times he uses this phrase on the night.
This elusive “capable state” has become somewhat of a mantra for him in recent weeks. And although it has been pointed out to him that this has been a core DA principle for the past two decades, he has continued to bandy it about as though the ANC had just thought of it.
From his January 8 statement speech to his weekly newsletter, the capable state has been his go-to theme of late.
He has promised, in his own words, that government will “end the practice of poorly qualified individuals being parachuted into positions of authority through political patronage”.
The irony, of course, is that the entire philosophy of the ANC-in-government is the very antithesis of the capable state.
Ever since they officially adopted the policy of cadre deployment back in 1997 – a process the president himself was once in charge of – the capability of the state has been slowly eroded to the point where today it is hard to find a single ANC-run department, local government or parastatal that is not in a constant state of crisis or looting.
The ANC’s deep ideological desire to control every single part of the state – and thereby control the lives of all citizens – is so baked into its DNA that it will never be able to walk away from cadre deployment.
And so the president’s words on building a capable state are entirely meaningless. If you need any proof of this, consider what took place not even one week after his solemn commitment to merit-based appointments.
- The head of the Public Service Commission appointed his mistress as a senior government official;
- Health Minister Zweli Mkhize appointed his niece as his Chief of Staff, despite a massive cloud of corruption hanging over her head;
- Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu appointed the thoroughly compromised Mo Shaik and Menzi Simelane as her special advisors;
- And the ANC decided to appoint an immunologist and former university vice-chancellor as the Chair of the embattled Eskom board.
This all happened within a week of the president promising us that the days of nepotism, patronage and unqualified appointments are a thing of the past in the ANC.
Hollow, meaningless words.
We’ve seen what cadre deployment has done to Eskom. We’ve seen what it has done to SAA. We’ve seen what it has done to PRASA, Denel, Transnet, SABC and every other state-owned enterprise.
But if you really want to see the devastation caused by this practice, you need to visit the towns and villages that seldom make the national news cycle. Because here the destruction of the state and its inability to deliver is on full display, 24 hours a day.
What I saw these past two weeks across the breadth of South Africa is the real state of our nation, and the true legacy of this ANC government: The Incapable State.
Every single local government I visited has been paralyzed by bad policy and worse appointments, to the point where it can no longer deliver the very basics.
I saw a ruling party trapped in a nightmarish Groundhog Day – a reality from which they cannot escape. And so they simply repeat, in the same perfunctory manner, the same ineffective steps over and over again until the municipality eventually fails and is placed under administration and run by remote control.
Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.
And the man who is meant to lead them out of this nightmare – the darling of the media and last hope of the once-proud ANC – is himself stuck in his own quicksand of warring factions and crippling indecisiveness.
The incapable head of an incapable state.
Hoping for this to change by itself won’t get us anywhere, because the ANC will simply carry on along this downward spiral until there is nothing left to save and nothing left to lose.
We, the citizens of this country, need to administer the shake-up that is required.
For this, we need to reimagine our entire political landscape. I wrote in my newsletter last week that South Africa needs a reset, in the same way that the country got a reset back in 1990 with the unbanning of political parties and the negotiation of our new democracy.
We need to break out of the old way of thinking that has dominated our political discourse these past two-and-a-half decades. And by “we” I mean everyone who wants to save the country from the disaster we’re heading towards, ANC included.
We need to forget about the old dogmas of conflicting ideology – that’s the wrong conversation entirely. The Berlin Wall has long fallen, Brezhnev is not in the Kremlin and the Cold War is over.
Our problems require pragmatic solutions, and none of this is rocket science.
For starters, we must immediately consign the practice of cadre deployment to the dustbin of history. If the president wants a capable state, he must put his money where his mouth is and build one.
But cadre deployment is but one symptom of a state that doesn’t know where it is required to act, and where the best course of action is to simply step out of the way.
If we want to unleash the power of the people, then we have to let them be part of the solution. Let the private sector do what it can, so that the state can focus on doing what it must.
We don’t need one monolithic state-run energy company. Let us sell off Eksom’s coal-fired stations to settle its debts, but let them still manage the grid. Let us open up the market to full competition. Let households, companies, mines and municipalities generate and sell power.
Then let us do the same in the education sector. The state is clearly struggling to provide quality education for all, and particularly in disadvantaged communities. Let us welcome the help of all who can assist.
For starters, we should be strengthening, not weakening, the roles of parents and school governing bodies. These are the most important and committed allies we have.
Let’s also encourage the entrance of private schools in all communities and let’s properly explore charter schools as a way of involving the private sector in education.
But most importantly we need to ensure that our teachers are properly trained, monitored and incentivised, and that will mean clipping the wings of the unions.
When it comes to healthcare, the idea that the state must be everything to everyone through the NHI is a terrible idea. We don’t need to destroy private healthcare in order to strengthen public healthcare.
The DA’s Sizani Healthcare Plan is full of practical solutions to our country’s massive healthcare challenges and won’t require additional funding or tax increases.
And again, by simply doing the basics right – by appointing capable people to run hospitals and health departments and by spending tax revenue on doctor and nursing posts rather than failed SOEs – we can fix healthcare without the NHI.
Safety and security is another area in which government must learn to let go of its tight national grip and start devolving power to the provinces and metros. Let those who are closest to the issues on the ground be responsible for the safety of the communities there, in line with international best practice.
And finally, government must accept that the best role it can play in creating jobs is that of a facilitator. Beyond creating an enabling environment, it should get out of the way and let businesses do most of the heavy lifting.
Government must learn to be a true supportive partner to the private sector. This means reforming and liberalising our labour legislation, and it can start by exempting small and medium businesses from all labour legislation other than the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
These are just some of the ways in which we can start to turn the country around. And I know the President has people on his executive who have been telling him the exact same thing.
If he’d had the courage to act on a good idea when his Finance Minister presented it to him, we would’ve already taken the first steps towards our recovery.
We have to let go of the ideas of the past and embrace the ideas of the future. And that means recognising the goals and the values that we might share across the aisle, rather than the old battle lines that have always divided us.
If we do so, we will find that we have far more in common than we perhaps thought we did.
What we refer to as the DA’s vision for South Africa – that of an open opportunity society for all – is in fact a vision that many people outside of the DA share. Once you start unpacking this vision and describing to people what it looks like in real terms, you find that it resonates far and wide.
This vision speaks of a society where one set of rules binds everyone equally – where a connected elite doesn’t get to play by its own rules.
It speaks of a society in which equal opportunity is more important than equal outcome. A society where individuals are so much more than mere representatives of their race or culture or gender.
A society where every person has the freedom to pursue their own dreams and create for themselves a life of meaning and value.
But no one can realise these freedoms if their basic needs aren’t met. And so, in our vision for South Africa, every man, woman and child has access to enough food to nourish them and keep them free from hunger.
Every family has a decent home, and this home has piped water, sanitation and electricity.
Every person can access quality healthcare within a reasonable distance of their home, and people feel safe and secure in their neighbourhoods.
All children receive the benefit of early childhood development before going on to attend a school where they receive quality basic schooling, free from the disruption of unions. Each of them will then have access to some form of post-school qualification or skills development.
This is a South Africa where every person stands equal before the law, and where everyone is free to worship whom they want to worship, love whom they want to love and speak the language of their choice.
It is a South Africa where all these opportunities enabled by the state has made it possible for people to live their own lives with dignity and independence. But for those who still need it, there is a social safety net to ensure that no one suffers the brutal effects of extreme poverty.
This vision is our entire project in the DA. Our dream is to help build a South Africa of opportunity for all – a country where every individual has the freedom to choose their own path in life.
And this is perhaps what struck me most during my tour across the nation: The lack of choice. The lack of freedom for people to decide where and how to live their lives.
I saw people whose lives had been limited not only by the immense obstacles in their path, but also by a government whose controlling, paternalistic attitude has removed all choice for them. A government that says: We know what’s best for you. We’ll look after you.
We often tell our children to dream big, because one day they can be whatever they choose. But for so many of our children growing up in rural villages and sprawling townships across South Africa, those dreams don’t mean much.
Their freedom of choice and their freedom to dream have been stolen from them.
That’s not what I want for my children, and neither should anyone else. Our children’s dreams should remain as wide and vast as the skies of our beautiful country. And it is up to us to ensure that they do.
That will require a new beginning here – a blank page on which all those who share this vision can sketch out a new way forward together, free from the ideological anchors of the past that continue to drag us back.
I believe this is possible. We can have the things we dream of.
We can have schools where our children receive the kind of education that sets them up for life.
We can have functional and safe cities – free from gangs and drugs – with world-class public transport networks.
We can have an economy that is attractive to investors once more – an economy that grows and creates jobs.
All of this is possible, but not with this current government.
That is where we need to make the change. That is where we need to hit the reset button and organise ourselves in a new way around common values and a common vision for South Africa.
I truly believe there are enough people across the whole political spectrum who genuinely care about the future of our country, who share the same values and who want the same things.
Let us now do whatever it takes to find each other.