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What a real state of the nation address would say about South Africa

EVERY year in February South Africa’s president delivers a state of the nation address. One theme which is never addressed is the state of the nation.

STEVEN FRIEDMAN, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

The address, given this year by President Cyril Ramaphosa, marks the opening of parliament. Every year, it is treated with expectation way out of line with its importance and is followed by loud disappointment.

No talk could possibly live up to the hype which envelops it and, despite the name, it is actually an outline of the government’s plans for the year. This is rarely exciting, particularly in a country in which everything the government says in the national debate is dismissed as ‘empty words’ by opposition parties and much of the media (as this year’s address has been). This is not true of voters, most of whom support the governing African National Congress (ANC).

But what would a real state of the nation address sound like – one which spelled out where South Africa is and might be going? In a couple of academic journal articles and a forthcoming book, I have tried to address the question. The answers are quite different to those offered by much current political talk.

The standard view on where South Africa is goes something like this. In 1994, the country put its past behind it by adopting new political rules and ways of implementing them – what scholars call institutions. It broke with its past of racial domination and set out on a democratic, non-racial path.

But the new institutions could not prevent greedy and power-hungry politicians, during the tenure of former president Jacob Zuma (May 2009 – February 2019), from damaging the economy and the institutions themselves. Ramaphosa was meant to mend both but has failed because he cares more about unity in the governing party than the country.

None of this stands up to scrutiny.


What really happened

Zuma and his allies did not defeat the constitution – the constitution defeated them. His hold on the ANC and government was defeated by the courts, freedom of expression expressed through a variety of media, and free elections. It was the fear that the ANC would lose the 2019 election if it was led by a president whom voters believed was too close to Zuma that won Ramaphosa the ANC presidency.

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Zuma is currently in breach of a Constitutional Court judgment because he refuses to appear before the Zondo Commission into state capture. This is more evidence that the institutions are working as intended because the courts and the commission are signalling that the former president is not above the law.

Read more: Zuma’s defiance is a grave moment for South Africa. But it’s not a constitutional crisis

More than a quarter century after democracy was achieved, the freedoms entrenched in the constitution live – people use them routinely to say what they feel, to get together with others to campaign, and to vote in ways which, contrary to widespread belief, do send messages to politicians which influence what they do.

There is, however, a big ‘but’. They work for only some. People living in poverty vote, and so they speak briefly. But, between elections, they can rarely use the courts, the media rarely expresses their concerns and, as the book tries to show, only the third of the population who have both the resources and the connectedness to the economy to enable them to speak are heard.

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The reason for this is not that the institutions don’t work, but that the economy and the society doesn’t work for most South Africans and so only some people can use the rules the democratic constitution created.

This is so not because, as is often claimed, the parties who represented the majority at the negotiations of the 1990s compromised too much but because they bargained on too little. They reached a deal which changed the political rules, but not the economy and society.

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Insiders and outsiders

South Africa before 1994 was a country run by an exclusive club to which people could belong only if they were white. The club has admitted new, black, members but remains exclusive because it excludes most people. The older members have more powers and privileges than the new recruits.

To be more concrete, the country was divided into insiders and outsiders before 1994. It still is. Some insiders are now black, although very few of the outsiders are white. Not all insiders are equal and, in the economy, the professions, education, culture and even sport at times, the older white members have advantages the newer black ones lack.

There are several reasons for this, but an important one is that the old economic, social and cultural leadership and the new political leaders shared a key view – that the goal of the ‘new South Africa’ was to extend to everyone what white people enjoyed under apartheid.


So, the chief goal of the elites since 1994 has been not to change what existed before democracy but to squeeze as many black people into it as possible. A concentrated economy which it was difficult to enter remained, but black people joined its boards and senior management. The professions remain as they were but black doctors, lawyers and accountants can now do what their white counterparts have been doing, in much the same way. It took student protests to shake most universities out of their belief, as the educationist James Moulder put it, that black students (and faculty) should change so that the university did not have to change (“The predominantly white universities: Some ideas for a debate”, in Jonathan Jansen (ed) Knowledge and Power in South Africa, 1991, (pp.117/118).

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It is easy to see why this route was chosen. Whites lived well under apartheid and it is not absurd for black leaders to want all to live in the same way. But what one in ten South Africans had because they used force to keep out the other nine-tenths cannot be extended to everyone, which is why South Africa since 1994 still excludes so many.

Divisions that stop progress

In a country whose politics is dominated by an obsession with individuals and power struggles, these realities are often ignored by the public debate, even if they lurk behind it, shaping what is said and done in ways not even those who say and do them always realise.

Because this reality cannot build a South Africa which offers hope to all, it explains many conflicts – and disappointments – which dominate the headlines. It is also why this country often lags behind others in its ability to create wealth and opportunity or to make government work and democracy a system which offers everyone a voice and a choice. And it explains why the change from one president to another has changed little, even though the new president has, unnoticed by the debate, charted a very different course to the one he replaced.

As long as this is ignored, the yearly ritual in which the state of the nation addresses are said to promise so much but are found to offer so little will continue. So too will the divisions which prevent the country becoming more of what it could be.

By The African Mirror