President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his fourth state of the nation address (SONA) on Thursday amid a deepening crisis at Eskom, a stalled economy and high unemployment, and nothing suggests there is a fresh, consensual corrective to any of these, a fortnight shy of another Moody’s review.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on Wednesday said it had hoped the president would be in a position to announce an accord on its proposal for the Public Investment Corporation to avail funds to reduce Eskom’s debt by R250 billion.
In the absence of that, it expects him to “highlight progress government has made with regards to halting the crisis at Eskom and what measures are being undertaken to save it”.
Cosatu is not alone in this, but its hopes of an agreement for the PIC to dip into the Government Employee Pension Fund have predictably met a wall of opposition. However, with public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan seemingly in favour, the veto here lies with finance minister Tito Mboweni, a cabinet colleague less convinced of giving the state a leading role in the economy.
In its SONA wish list, Cosatu called for a vision of “state-led economic growth” and a policy of zero job losses, a vision that places it at odds with the philosophy of Mboweni, who stated repeatedly that if he had his way, South African Airways (SAA) would have been shut down to relieve the state of one drain on its coffers. Gordhan on the other hand, memorably called on South Africans to fly SAA as the national carrier hits the rocks.
“Currently, there is a robust debate in the country about the economic policy and the federation is continuing to insist on an economic policy framework that focuses on reducing unemployment. Zero unemployment rate should be the objective of the economic framework. We hope that the SONA will articulate the vision of state-led economic growth,” Cosatu said.
The labour movement’s preoccupation with state intervention and the role of parastatals as employment vehicles, if nothing else, is one side of a political divide Ramaphosa needs to straddle within the ANC.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has picked up the ball in the run-up to SONA by stepping-up its campaign against Gordhan and demanding Ramaphosa fire him or contend with the second biggest opposition party disrupting his address in the National Assembly.
It pinned the crisis at Eskom on Gordhan and accused him of pushing the electricity utility, along with SAA, Denel and Transnet to the brink to allow the “looting” of the state’s assets by facilitating privatisation.
Academic and political analyst Steven Friedman said the EFF was misreading public sentiment, because even if in respectable corners there was grudging approval of its disruption of former president Jacob Zuma’s speeches – because much of the nation felt he had abused state funds – it would not get the same sympathy for targeting Gordhan and Ramaphosa. Nor could the EFF possibly hope that Ramaphosa would in fact fire Gordhan, even if he wanted to, now that the EFF had turned its campaign against the minister into an ultimatum.
“There is no way he can remove Gordhan because he would have capitulated to the red berets,” Friedman told African News Agency (ANA). Nor did he see a way the EFF could not cause some sort of trouble on Thursday, having threatened to do so so hard and repeatedly.
Friedman said the EFF’s antagonism towards Gordhan arose for a few reasons. Firstly, his insistence that the South African Revenue Service had a right to intelligence gathering was articulated in a unit created largely to combat illicit cigarette smuggling. One of the EFF’s biggest donors, Carnilinx, is on record as conceding to involvement in such activities.
Secondly, the EFF leadership is haunted by tender irregularities in Limpopo and the VBS Mutual Bank scandal. This predictably put it on a collision course with Gordhan who, whatever your view on rogue spy units, has committed nowhere the sins Jacob Zuma had, to the public mind.
Friedman said the EFF would probably create some sort of disturbance on Thursday, given its pronouncements and leader Julius Malema’s eagerness to show himself as a political big man with the power to dictate and disrupt. If so, it will to some extent overshadow a presidential message that was always likely to leave the true pointers as to government’s intentions to Mboweni when he tables the national budget later this month.
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