South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday night delivered his sixth annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Cape Town’s City Hall, taking a nostalgic approach to the event as part of commemorating 30 years of democracy, as well as addressing what is likely to be the most highly-contested general election the country has seen since democratic rule.
The occasion attracted intense scrutiny from opposition political parties, analysts, and commentators alike, as the country seeks to steer through severe socioeconomic and political challenges.
Ramaphosa’s address attempted to highlight the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) critical role in South Africa’s progress post-apartheid. However, this endeavor revealed a profound disconnect between the government’s narrative and the lived realities of ordinary South Africans, according to some analysts, conflating the ruling ANC and the state. While the President highlighted key achievements such as the provision of housing and water to millions of people previously disenfranchized by the apartheid state, he acknowledged the challenges currently faced by the country, including “loadshedding, addressing the challenges in the logistics sector, tackling crime and corruption, and accelerating job creation” in his speech.
“Whenever Ramaphosa spoke about achievements, he conflated the party and the state – the highlighting figures that fought for democracy that were also part of the ANC, like Mandela and Tambo. But when he spoke about failures and challenges, he referred to the state,” says independent policy and risk analyst Marisa Lourenço to FORBES AFRICA. “This is typical of liberation movements-turned-ruling parties, which, at least in postcolonial Africa, draw their legitimacy from the past rather than the present, especially when their rule has overseen the decay of essential services, an energy crisis, and state capture.”
Critics of Ramaphosa’s address include both major opposition parties, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) condemning the address as “populist posturing and policy proposals, including the doubling down on state-centric policy and legislation and the arrogance of a president who is completely out of touch with ordinary South Africans,” according to a statement by the party’s leader John Steenhuisen.
Another leading opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), saw all of its members boycott SONA after a court application to dismiss its leader Julius Malema’s suspension from Parliament was dismissed earlier that day, following his conviction of contempt of Parliament for storming the stage during Ramaphosa’s 2023 SONA delivery.
Lourenço continued her analysis of Ramaphosa’s conflation of the state and the ANC, stating, “Not only does it place the ANC at the center of all accomplishments, including the transition to democracy, but it also implies that without the ANC, South Africa would be a worse place to live – and actually, that the democratic freedoms enjoyed since 1994 could be stripped away. It transmits the idea that we have only just emerged from the other side – the apartheid era – and that our democracy is still quite tenuous. In this way, then, the only way to preserve democracy is to ensure that the party which fought for it remains in power for another five years.”
The ANC is facing the most realistic challenge to its rule since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, with recent polls indicating that the party may retain less than 40% of the public vote in the elections set to take place sometime this year. Gustavo de Carvalho, a Senior Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says that one key takeaway from SONA is that it sets the tone of the ANC’s approach to the upcoming elections. “It showcases a comparison between today and 1994,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. “It’s clear that it is not only about commemorating the 30th anniversary of democracy but also about controlling the narrative that the ANC in this current administration has not improved as much as expected in terms of the economy and many of the social indicators.”
De Carvalho also notes that the fact that a date for the election has not yet been announced might indicate that the ANC is doing its best to make as much of the electioneering time available. “And I think for the ANC at this stage, the stalling of the dates for the elections provides them some time in terms of trying to shift certain narratives to regain some of the voters that have been under a lot of pressure and attention from other political parties.”
The run-up to the 2024 general election has seen the birth of multiple new political parties to add to the established opposition groups, with an ANC breakaway party being formed under former South African President Jacob Zuma in the form of the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, and Rise Mzansi as notable events, spawned out of severe dissatisfaction with the current political space and the ANC’s inability to resolve challenges such as wealth inequality, crime, and the electricity crisis.
While President Ramaphosa put forward many possible solutions to these challenges during his speech and cited historical achievements by the ANC as reasons to believe in a future under their governance, de Carvalho’s analysis is quite blunt. “On how effective the measures proposed by President Ramaphosa might be… do we believe in what he has to say?”
Lourenço concurs, reinforcing her earlier point about the language of the address ‘drawing legitimacy from the past rather than the present’, stating, “Ramaphosa spoke about better equipping law enforcement and also the importance of economic empowerment for women but didn’t mention the role that education plays in all of this. Improved access to education is not only absolutely vital in starting to close the gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa, going some way towards preventing at least some types of financially motivated crimes, but is also an area in which the government has absolutely failed in the post-apartheid era.”
President Ramaphosa’s SONA address comes at a time when South Africans are dealing with a multifaceted set of challenges, and while the ruling ANC has managed to deliver increased services and equality to many, they have reportedly failed to meet many of the promises made in democratic South Africa, with unemployment, infrastructural challenges, and crime becoming a scourge on society. The rise of new political movements, as well as President Ramaphosa’s nostalgic callback to the ANC’s achievements and deflection of criticisms, has led analysts to be critical of the address. However, one thing is certain: the election year ahead is likely to be hotly-contested and fraught with high stakes, signifying a critical juncture for South Africa’s democracy.