If we table the reform agenda, Mr President, will you back it?

Issued by John Steenhuisen MP – Leader of the Democratic Alliance
16 Feb 2021 in News

The following speech was delivered today during Parliament’s debate on the State of the Nation Address. 

Honourable Speaker

Honourable President

Honourable Members

This debate on the President’s State of the Nation Address comes at a very difficult time for South Africa.

Our thoughts are with each and every South African who is struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table today.

And our prayers are with those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19, as well as those who are battling the virus as we speak. May you find your strength in the love and support of those around you.

We are facing an uncertain and potentially very bleak future, and we need to recognise that in this debate.

More than ever before, the words spoken in this house must be frank and honest.

Anyone who steps up to this podium with the intention of sugar-coating the truth, downplaying our challenges or shielding the inept and the corrupt will be doing South Africa a massive disservice.

If we’re to have any chance of digging ourselves out of the deep hole we’re in, we’re going to have to be truthful about the scale of our problems, the mistakes that contributed to putting us in this position and the steps we now need to take to rectify them.

That goes for members from both sides of the house. Whether you sit to my right or my left, our job is the same: to act in the best interest of every single woman, man and child in this country as we try to navigate our way out of this crisis.

That is our sworn duty, and this house had better start doing its job for once.

We owe it to the citizens who rely on us to make their democracy work.

We owe it to the people who went through hell this past year and are looking for a sign that things are going to be okay.

We owe it to those who paid the ultimate price in this pandemic, and to the loved ones they left behind.

At a time when our country is at its very lowest point and people are filled with doubts and despondency, we can’t mess around in this house.

Our duty, first and foremost, is to hold the Executive to account. Not to rubberstamp decisions. Not to grandstand. Not to use our numbers to shield people from scrutiny.

Honourable Members,

Last week Thursday, we gathered to hear President Ramaphosa’s assessment of where we stand as a nation, and what we’re doing to get to where we want to be.

If we’re honest, the mood going into this SONA was not hopeful at all.

Having sat through three previous SONAs by President Ramaphosa – and then watched as every grand plan and aspirational promise evaporated as the year wore on – even the most loyal commentators were now looking to the 2021 SONA with a sense of resigned realism.

That once-lustrous cloak of the New Dawn three years ago has turned out to be a cheap imitation. Today it is frayed and faded, and no longer really worth taking out the closet.

After three years of this Ramaphosa administration – and particularly the past year of the Covid and lockdown crisis – no one was going to succumb to the Thuma Mina craze again. 

The Kool-Aid remained untouched.

And, it turns out, for good reason. Aside from a few lines about Covid and vaccines, this SONA was more or less a repeat of 2020, 2019 and 2018.

The same burning issues are still apparently the President’s top priorities. And if we just shut our eyes and cross our fingers…

 Any day now we’re going to see a turnaround at Eskom.

Any day now we’re going see only qualified people appointed to serve in the state.

And any day now we’re going to see that the President and government will not stand for corruption.

These have all been promised at multiple SONAs in recent years, with very little evidence of progress. But the president wants you to know that they are still top of his mind and on his to-do list.

The only problem is, people no longer believe it. And I don’t only mean the people here on the opposition benches. I mean regular citizens, the press, the business community and civil society.

There is a growing realisation that neither this President nor his government can or will tackle any of these big issues. 

They are so paralyzed by factionalism and power struggles that they are incapable of making even the most obvious decisions like suspending clearly corrupt individuals, let alone the big decisions around the reforms our dying economy so desperately needs.

And it seems that they are increasingly relegated to the role of mere spectators to all of this unfolding crisis. They are gawking helplessly at the fire that is consuming our country, instead of getting in there and putting out the flames.

What many people once thought was the best chance an ANC President would ever have of turning things around has turned out to be almost no chance at all.

But what perhaps stood out most glaringly in Thursday’s address was all the double-speak.

The entire speech was full of massive contradictions between noble-sounding pledges and the reality of the ANC government’s actions.

The president repeatedly spoke of reforms, but what is clear from his actions – or rather, his inactions – is that he means for things to stay exactly the same.

If he couldn’t get his party to back his Finance Minister’s reform plan last year without first neutralising every critical aspect of it, he has no chance of driving a meaningful reform plan this year. But at least it sounded good in the speech.

The president spoke of fixing the public service, as he did in last year’s SONA too. But what he really means – and what he intends to do – is to continue with the party’s policy of state capture through cadre deployment.

You can’t professionalise the state and deploy party loyalists to key positions. It’s one or the other. But the promise sounded good in the speech.

The president spoke of the importance of job creation and, for the first time, repeated the DA mantra that it is the private sector who are going to have to create the bulk of these jobs.

 But while he says that, his government is doing all it can to discourage entrepreneurship and make it as hard as possible for small and medium enterprises to survive.

Thanks to the world’s most unreliable power supply, a set of rigid labour laws designed around the largest players at the table, and a woefully inept state bureaucracy, South Africa continues to drop down the Ease of Doing Business rankings. But giving a nod to the private sector sounded good in the speech.

The president spoke of strengthening our country’s agricultural output, but in the very same breath he reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the expropriation of property without compensation.

And if you’re still unsure how that will go, just take a look at the case of Ivan Cloete, a coloured farmer who has been leasing – and successfully farming – a state farm in the Darling area for the past couple of years. Two weeks ago he was served with an eviction order and told his farm was to be handed over to an MK Veteran.

That’s straight out of the ZANU-PF playbook!

Expropriation Without Compensation is the very antithesis of strengthening agricultural output. It is a massive deterrent to investment, not only in agriculture but in all sectors of our economy. But again the contradiction doesn’t seem to matter, as long as it sounds good in the speech.

The president spoke of drawing a line in the sand on corruption, once and for all. Except it’s not once and for all, because he said it in 2018, and in 2019, and again in last year’s SONA. And since then we have witnessed arguably the worst kind of government corruption: pandemic looting.

Corruption is endemic in the ANC, and there is little President Ramaphosa can do about it, because he doesn’t seem to hold any of the Aces here.

 So instead we get promised yet another superfluous body – this time an anti-corruption advisory council – to create the illusion of doing something.

We don’t need another council or panel or agency. What we need is to bring back the Scorpions with their 93% conviction rate, which is most likely why they were disbanded in the first place.

And the president still seems intent on rolling out the most ambitious vaccination plan our country has ever attempted, aiming to reach tens of millions of people by the end of the year.

The reality, as things currently stand, is that we will not have anywhere near the vaccine doses we need to do so. Not because other countries hoarded them all, but because our government was fast asleep for half a year while everyone else was queuing, and so now we have to be satisfied with the scraps of the world, even a failed state like Zimbabwe has left us behind.

On every single issue in his SONA speech there was a gulf as wide as the Karoo sky between what he promised and what his government is either able or willing to deliver.

Dressing up the top and tail of the speech in flowery metaphors about fiery fynbos renewal or inspirational poems by Maya Angelou failed to mask the shortcomings that were so very obvious in the body of the speech.

I have no problem with using quotes in a speech. You may have noticed that I often do so myself. But then the quote has to be appropriate. It has to sound credible in the context of the rest of the message.

Imploring people, in the lovely words of Maya Angelou, to rise to face our challenging future sounds wonderful. But it means nothing when it is in fact the actions and the policies of government that are keeping people down.

You cannot tell people to rise when your government’s unjust and irrational decisions these past 11 months have destroyed their livelihoods and kept them pinned down. 

You cannot tell people to rise when even the so-called reformers in your cabinet can’t pass a single reform to breathe life into our economy.

You cannot tell people to rise when the factions of your party have so immobilised your administration that absolutely nothing gets done and the looters of the state still occupy government positions.

People cannot rise when the boot of government is firmly on their neck.

So that particular Maya Angelou poem was perhaps not the right quote for the occasion.

Fortunately I have found something a little more appropriate. It’s a song by The Beatles, from their 1965 album, Rubber Soul. You might recognise it. It starts like this:

He’s a real nowhere man

Sitting in his nowhere land

Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Because that is essentially what last week’s SONA was, right?

Plans so far removed from reality and from ever being executed by this permanently paralyzed government that they might as well not be made at all.

Nowhere plans for nobody.

But here’s the thing, Mr President. I know you’re in a terrible bind. I know the volatile situation in your party has left you with very little room to move.

Even if you wanted to act – and I’m still prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt – the forces are amassing against you and the ground is shifting beneath your feet every day. You only need to read the tea leaves to see this.

For you to mobilise your party, with its majority in this house, to do what we all know is the right thing is proving to be impossible.

This means our country is effectively trapped in a bus with no one at the wheel, as we hurtle towards the edge of a cliff.

The truth is, we simply don’t have time to wait for the ANC to stop fighting and for someone to grab the wheel, if that’s even a possibility. Our problems are so pressing and so big that we have to act right now.

And so today, I would like to propose to you a way out where South Africans emerge as the winners.

A solution that will allow you and some of your colleagues to do the right thing despite your party.

Over the next five months, the DA will table – bill by bill – an agenda for reform and growth here in this house.

Each of these bills will deal with an issue critical to our economic recovery, spanning energy, public enterprises, finance, mining, labour and small businesses.

A few of them are existing bills that we will reintroduce, but most of them are new.

And we are going to need your help to pass them.

 We will soon be reintroducing our Cheaper Energy Bill to break Eskom up into separate generation, transmission and distribution entities, as well as allowing for cities to procure electricity directly from producers.

 Then there is our Fiscal Responsibility Bill which has already been tabled and is awaiting an allocation of committee time. This is a bill that will ensure that our country’s debt levels and debt service costs are kept under control by setting limits on how much the government can borrow each year.

 Also awaiting committee time is our Public Finance Management Amendment Bill, which was tabled last year. This will go a long way towards ensuring transparency in financial reporting at our SOEs.

 Then, in the mining sector, we will be tabling two Private Member’s Bills: One that will rescind Section 100 of the MPRDA – the section that contains the investment-killing Mining Charter – and the other, a bill calling for transparency around the allocation of mining rights.

 To assist Small Businesses and make it easier for them to operate and reduce friction costs we will be reintroducing our Red Tape Reduction Bill, which is critical if we are serious about growing jobs in that sector.

 And finally, we will be submitting significant amendments to the Labour Relations Act, mainly to prevent agreements reached at bargaining councils from being applied to businesses who weren’t party to those negotiations.

 Individually, each of these bills can have a meaningful impact on the way business is done and public funds are managed in our country. But together, they have the potential to kick-start our economy.

 We will be tabling them here, not to make a political point, but to give those good men and women still left in the ANC the opportunity to vote for reform and growth even if your enemies on the benches around you won’t.

 You see, it’s not necessary for the entire ANC caucus to back these bills. It’s not even necessary for half the caucus to do so. If our reform agenda is supported by the majority of these opposition benches, then we need little more than a third of your party to back them too.

 Let’s call it 85 members. Surely that’s possible. And more importantly, surely it’s morally right. There must be at least 85 ANC members in this house who want to do the right thing.

But the big issue here is the urgency. We will be introducing all these bills in the first half of the year because we have no more time to lose. South Africa simply can’t afford another year of ANC dithering and tiptoeing around factions.

Nowhere man don’t worry

Take your time, don’t hurry

Leave it all ’til somebody else

Lends you a hand  

Mr President, we are here to lend you a hand so you can do what’s right for the country rather than what’s right by your party. 

It seems inconceivable that there should even be a question mark over this choice. Surely the President of the Republic recognises that his constitutional duty is, first and foremost, to his country.

But as we all know, things are not that obvious in the liberation movement. Your predecessor famously said that for him it was ANC first, South Africa second.

And you yourself are on record having said that you’d rather be seen as a weak president than split the ANC.

It’s hard to imagine another leader of a modern democracy anywhere else in the world saying that.

Being a fan of Maya Angelou, you probably know that she once said:

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” 

Is that what you were doing when you told us you placed the unity of the ANC above your duties as President? Were you showing us who you are? Should we have believed you?

Because that is not what this country needs.

We’re in a desperate situation on multiple fronts. We’ve never been in more urgent need of bold leadership that unashamedly puts the country and its people first.

We cannot afford anything less than that. And you have to give the country some kind of sign that you’re that man. Because at the moment it doesn’t look like you are. 

You couldn’t bring yourself to stand up for our Constitution and the Rule of Law when our former President, as well as your party’s current Secretary-General and his Deputy, openly defied and mocked these sacred foundations of our democracy not even two weeks ago.

Your response, when Jacob Zuma publicly vowed to defy a Constitutional Court order to appear before the Zondo Commission, was that we should all give him some time and space to think things over.

And your silence yesterday, when he stuck to his word and snubbed the commission, spoke volumes.

None of that sounds like someone who has decided to put country before party.

In the 2016 Constitutional Court judgment in the Nkandla case, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng expressly spoke about the unique constitutional obligations of our president.

He was referring to Jacob Zuma, but of course, it applies to anyone who holds the office. He wrote:

“His is indeed the highest calling, to the highest office in the land. Only upon him has the constitutional obligation to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic been expressly imposed”.

The Chief Justice doesn’t seem to think that this is a grey area at all. The president’s first duty is always to country and Constitution.

So here’s another Maya Angelou quote that feels quite apt, Mr President:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

The time has now come for you to find your courage and make that decision: South Africa or the ANC? 

Support the agenda for reform and growth when we table our bills here in Parliament, and history will remember you as the president who stood up for his country even though it was hard.

Fail to do so, and history will record you as just another ANC leader who buckled under the weight of his party’s selfish goals. A president who couldn’t find the courage to do what’s right when it mattered most.

I don’t even mind if you can’t bring yourself to back a DA bill. If you want to rewrite and resubmit them here under your own name, we will support you. If you want to turn them into committee bills, that’s also fine.

Because It’s not about the name on the bill. It’s about fixing the things that are holding our economy back and impoverishing our people.

But just know that the alternative to all of this does not end well for you and your party.

Regardless of who emerges victorious in your internal war, if you fail to implement economic reforms, and if this then accelerates our slide towards a failed state that cannot fulfil its basic obligations, the voters will abandon you.

You opened your SONA with the imagery of a fynbos veld being renewed every twenty years by a hot fire. This is a good analogy for our country, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

In your version, the fire is the Covid pandemic that will supposedly burn our veld clean and allow new seeds to sprout. 

But this is not true. We don’t need a killer virus to level our economy and force us to start from scratch. That’s a deeply cynical view.

No, what will save us is the blaze of renewal that comes with a new government.

That is the hot fire that will allow the dormant seeds of our stalled economy to germinate and our country to explode into vivid colour.

Just as a fynbos veld needs this to happen every couple of decades for it to thrive, so does our country.

So the choice is yours, Mr President. You can either help us reform the economy now, or you can take your chances with the fire that will undoubtedly follow.

Thank you.