On Thursday evening, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his seventh State of the Nation address as the country grapples with a long-lasting energy crisis and an economy pummelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Africa’s second-largest economy is also facing a surge in living costs and widespread unemployment.
With next year’s elections fast approaching, Ramaphosa on Thursday sought to portray himself as the solution-maker in a nation he said was “defined by hope and resilience”.
Here are five key takeaways from the speech delivered to Parliament in Cape Town.
‘Extraordinary measures’ for energy crisis
Ramaphosa declared a national “state of disaster” over crippling power shortages that threaten the country’s economy and security, investing the government with additional powers to sign emergency procurement procedures faster and with less oversight.
“Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures,” he said.
The crisis dates back to 2008 but intensified last year. And now, power cuts of up to 8 hours per day are affecting homes, factories and businesses across the nation of 60 million.
The declaration will enable the government buy additional power from neighbouring countries on an emergency basis and provide assistance to businesses.
“Without a reliable supply of electricity, our efforts to grow an inclusive economy that creates jobs and reduces poverty will not succeed,” Ramaphosa said.
He also announced that he would appoint a minister of electricity to focus solely on the crisis, as well as loans and incentives to move South Africa onto solar energy.
Fighting poverty and unemployment
Public anger has been mounting about a 33 percent unemployment rate, surging living costs and the near collapse of government services in a number of towns.
The South African president blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for worsening “deep unemployment”, as the country lost two million jobs.
“The pandemic negatively affected livelihoods and increased poverty,” he said, while also claiming that about one and a half million new jobs were created between the third quarter of 2021 and that of 2022.
His government will continue to pay “destitute South Africans” the 350-rand ($19.60) social relief grant at a time when “the rising cost of living is deepening poverty and inequality”, he said.
“Through a strengthened and expanded social protection system, fewer people will live in poverty and fewer households will experience hunger,” he said.
Ramaphosa said most South African municipalities – 163 out of 257 – were found to be ineffective and sometimes corrupt, leading to poor service delivery.
“The government is implementing a number of interventions to address failures at local government level and improve basic service delivery,” Ramaphosa said.
“These include enhancing the capacity of public representatives and officials, maintaining and upgrading local infrastructure, and invoking the powers of national government to intervene where municipalities fail to meet their responsibilities.”
He added that “integrity assessments” will become a mandatory requirement for recruitment to the public service and entry exams will be introduced.
“We are amending legislation and strengthening the role of the Public Service Commission to ensure that qualified people are appointed to senior management positions and to move towards creating a single, harmonised public service,” the president said.
The announcement came even as the shadow of “state capture” – a scandal in which the Guptas, a family of Indian businessmen, used their affiliations with Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma to secure contracts without due process – continued to loom over the current administration.
Women’s rights and empowerment
Ramaphosa promised “significantly more funding” to be made available for the police, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Special Investigating Unit in a country with one of the highest sexual violence rates globally.
“Crimes against women and children remain a deeply disturbing feature of our national life,” he said, promising to set up specialised units focusing on specific types of crimes.
The government also intends to “direct at least 40 percent of public procurement to women-owned businesses” to support female entrepreneurs.
He also claimed that complaints that calls to 10111, the emergency response line, went unanswered will be addressed.
“Violent crimes take a heavy toll on every South African. Communities across our country live in fear for the safety of their families. This situation cannot continue and must not continue,” the president added.
Hope and resilience
Ramaphosa said his country was not defined by “the minerals under our earth or the spectacular landscape above it”, but by the “hope and resilience” of its people.
He claimed that when he asks himself why he took up the role of president, a voice in him tells him, “Follow in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela.”
The late former South African president and anti-apartheid activist made “great sacrifices” while serving his people, Ramaphosa said, in advance of the 10th anniversary of Mandela’s death.
“We need to work together and leave no one behind,” he said.