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South Africa

Ramaphosa evokes national rebirth with more jobs, power and vaccines

Solemn national address prioritises local production and green energy transition

In a nearly empty parliament on yesterday evening (11 February) President Cyril Ramaphosa resorted to pastoral analogies to convey the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and fire up his State of the Nation Address in a ceremony stripped of its usual bustle and razamatazz.

'Like a wildfire that sweeps across the mountainous ranges where the fynbos grows, a deadly pandemic has swept across the world, leaving devastation in its path,' said Ramaphosa. 'And yet like the hardy fynbos of our native land, we too have proven to be resilient in many ways.'

Growing on the higher reaches on Table Mountain, overlooking the parliament, and on other mountains in the Western and Eastern Cape, the fynbos – a narrow belt of shrubland – is a vital part of the country's water catchment and wider ecology.

In this evocation of South Africa's rugged biosphere, some see a warning of much tougher times to come. After a year in which the national economy shrank by 7.2%, Ramaphosa promised a bounce back to average growth of 3% over the next 10 years with a laser-like focus on jobs. 

Surveying the prospect of mounting budget deficits and the lack of a robust plan to restructure state-owned enterprises, the ratings agencies were threatening another downgrade for South Africa's debt, even before Ramaphosa's speech. 

Fitch and Moody's were not the intended audience last night. Ramaphosa wanted to rally the troops behind the battered African National Congress ahead of local elections now likely to be held in November.

His standing in the party – and whether he can improve on its dwindling support in the last local elections under his predecessor Jacob Zuma – will be tested in another year of the public health emergency – or what Ramaphosa calls the 'state of disaster'. The country has recorded over 1.5 million cases of coronavirus and 47,000 deaths.

Ramaphosa skirted around how the government planned to cut public spending and start reining in the ballooning budget deficit. That grim news was left to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to explain in two weeks' time.

Setting out core priorities of overcoming the pandemic with a strengthened public health service and vaccine distribution, Ramaphosa avoided too many measurable promises. Trade unions are calling for the government to ensure that 70% of South Africans are vaccinated this year but that looks unlikely after the slow start and recent glitches. Next week, the campaign to vaccinate health workers is due to start.

Over the last four months, some 450,000 jobs have been created under the government's special employment programme with recruitment notices out for another 180,000. That sounds impressive until set against official figures for unemployment which rose to 30.8%, or 43.1% in the government's expanded definition, in the third quarter of 2020. 

Many of the new jobs, Ramaphosa insisted, would come from a determined bid to step up local production of goods by 20% over the next five years, cutting back imports for Asia and Europe and selling more into Africa's newly-launched continental free trade area.

Without further elaboration on how the government was going to restructure the power utility Eskom and other state entities, Ramaphosa said the government was about to announce which private companies had won contracts to supply a further 2,000 megawatts of emergency power and it would be issuing requests for bids for a further 2,600MW of renewable power shortly. Another bidding round for independent power providers is scheduled for August (AC Vol 62 No 3, Shot in the dark & Vol 62 No 1, Challenging the statist quo).

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