When Jacob Zuma made his various state of the nation addresses (SONA), the media contingent used to take bets on how far off-script he was likely to go.
Getting his speech from the GCIS (Government Communication and Information System) a short while before he spoke, was no guarantee that what you read would be what he said, which meant you’d have to listen carefully the whole (often tortuous) way through, to be sure you didn’t miss something momentuous.
The significance of what Mr Zuma said on each occasion (when he eventually got to say it over the barrage of “on a point of order” interruptions) was lost in his halting delivery, replete with inexplicable pauses, that gave the impression he was seeing his speech for the first time.
His successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, is a polished orator by comparison, and it is clear that he puts a great deal of effort into his SONAs.
It is rumoured that he works on his speech for some weeks before the target delivery date, investing specific intent in every word and turn of phrase, and having listened to him twice before in the recent past, the nation no doubt expected the order of polished and impactful delivery he has previously given.
Paradoxically, he seemed ill at ease at times when he delivered what was tipped to be his most momentuous address to date last Thursday night, stumbling over some phrases, and even seeming to lose his train of thought at times.
It was his most disappointing SONA to date.
His seven key priorities and the five driving tenets he listed, sounded like little other than a wish list.
DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, on the steps of the House immediately afterwards, made the cogent observation that of course we want no person in South Africa to go hungry, our economy to grow at a rate faster than our population, and every 10-year-old to be able to read for meaning, but Mr Ramaphosa gave no indication of how any of this would be made to happen.
In fairness, the much-celebrated Ramaphoria was bound to wear off, but this was arguably Mr Ramaphosa’s most disappointing address since the ousting of Mr Zuma, because unlike the two previous occasions, he failed to give the nation hope.
Instead, he asked the nation to dream with him, embarking on a flight of fancy about building a new city which, from his lyrical description, would further entrench, rather than reduce, the inequality which so bedevils our society.
No mention of the unbundling of Eskom in order to address the utility’s crippling debt burden, no mention of holding teachers to account so that the shocking decline in educational outcomes can be reversed, no mention of steps to be taken to avoid the SABC from going dark, no mention of what Government plans to do to create the promised two million jobs for young people, no mention of the policy initiatives that will drive economic growth to exceed population growth, no mention of how it will come to pass that no South African will go hungry, no plans for how violent crime will be halved.
Instead, what the nation got, was an insight into the legacy Mr Ramaphosa would like to leave, assuming he gets two terms in office: “that within the next 10 years we will have made progress in tackling poverty, inequality, and unemployment”, but even here, we have no idea what would constitute having “made progress”.
Granted, he cleverly avoided saying the dreaded expropriation without compensation, thus enraging the EFF’s Julius Malema, who accused him of ignoring the ruling party’s manifesto and elective conference resolutions.
He also reaffirmed the constitutional mandate of the South African Reserve Bank, again rebutting Ace Magashule’s destructive assertions after the last cabinet lekgotla, but Mr Magashule’s verbal contortions on this issue post-SONA, make it clear that the fight for supremacy between Mr Ramaphosa and the populist faction in the ANC is far from over.
Read with the nomination of a number of compromised ANC cadres as key parliamentary oversight committee chairs – Faith Muthambi, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Supra Mahumapelo, Mosebenzi Zwane, Bongani Bongo – it becomes clear that Mr Ramaphosa has far less room to manoeuvre in pursuit of his reform agenda than was popularly believed, making his lacklustre SONA understandable.