Ramaphosa promises much in maiden state of the nation address

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PARLIAMENT, February 17 – After only one day in office, President Cyril Ramaphosa made bold promises in his maiden state-of-the-nation address that ranged from implementing free higher education, faster land reform with expropriation without compensation, a national health insurance and a new mining policy, to rooting out corruption in public enterprises.

Ramaphosa began his speech by acknowledging the extraordinary political crisis that saw Jacob Zuma driven out of office by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and — in the face of loud booing from the floor — thanking his predecessor for how he accepted his fate.

He thanked South Africans for their “patience and forbearance” with the political transition, and added: “We should put all the negativity that has dogged our country behind us, because a new dawn is upon us.”

Ramaphosa conceded that poverty had risen, despite tentative signs of economic upturn, and called for a concerted effort to put the country on a new growth path, with the help of labour, business and civil society.

“This year, we will be initiating measures to set the country on a new path of growth, employment and transformation. We will do this by getting social partners in our country to collaborate in building a social compact on which we will create drivers of economic recovery.”

He signalled more social pending by implementing free higher education for first-year students from households with an income of less than R350,000 a year, making good on Zuma’s last populist promise, and the long-awaited national health service.

“The NHI Bill is now ready to be processed through government and will be submitted to Parliament in the next few weeks.Certain NHI projects targeting the most vulnerable people in society will commence in April this year.”

Coupled with the introduction in March of a national minimum wage, which he helped to negotiate, it will see Ramaphosa put on the table three ambitious measures aimed at the country’s poor majority in the year before a weakened ANC seeks a new mandate in the 2019 national elections.

Ramaphosa made a call for mining to again become a driver of economic growth, calling it a sunrise sector, and for an aggressive drive to boost the potential of the agriculture sector. This would include faster land redistribution, and where necessary, expropriation without compensation.

“We are determined that expropriation without compensation should be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensure that the land is returned to those from whom it was taken under colonialism and apartheid.”

He said government would seek to stimulate more investment in mining, to capitalise on a rise in commodity prices, and to resolve the impasse about the latest iteration of the Mining Charter, which is being challenged in court, which he said would be resolved with a redraft that was acceptable to all stakeholders.

Ramaphosa identified youth unemployment as South Africa’s biggest challenge and announced a new jobs summit and national investment conference in coming months.

There was a hint of belt-tightening in a promise to reconfigure the size and number of government departments, and a slap to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s bid to extend a contract with Cash Paymaster Services to pay out welfare grants, directly contradicting her claim that it was the only option for now to keep the service going.

The contract is widely seen as wasteful and suspect and Ramaphosa was at pains to signal an onslaught on corruption, in particular at state-owned enterprises. He said their running would be cleaned up and their funding model reviewed to stem vast losses.

“These SOEs cannot borrow their way out of their financial difficulties, and we will therefore undertake a process of consultation with all stakeholders to review the funding model of SOEs and other measures.”

Seen as instrumental in changes at the top of power utility Eskom, Ramaphosa promised that the way boards at parastatals are appointed will be taken in hand to ensure they consist of “people with expertise, experience and integrity” and that the boards would be put at a remove from procurement.

After the Zuma administration’s hollowing out of the National Prosecuting Authority, he promised to ensure that it would be staffed with competent, trusted professionals and that a new attitude would be engendered in public service in general.

“We want to instil a new discipline, to do things correctly, to do them completely and to do them timeously.”

He added a touch of poetry and call for solidarity by citing the lyrics of a song by late jazz legend Hugh Masekela.”I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around, When they triumph over poverty, I wanna be there when the people win the battle against AIDS, I wanna lend a hand, I wanna be there for the alcoholic… send me.”

– African News Agency (ANA)