For the entire week, the EFF has had Ramaphosa on tenterhooks, and he used the first minutes of his speech to disarm them. EFF leader Julius Malema and his score of MPs sat stony-faced and red, refusing to acknowledge Ramaphosa’s entry (although everybody stands), but the president had other ideas.
He started with a story of how he had met Malema in the week and discussed how to sing Thuma Mina, the theme song of Ramaphosa’s call to volunteerism. The story made Malema lift his head, smile and giggle. After that, no disruption was possible.
Ramaphosa spoke for almost two hours, the longest State of the Nation address in 25 years, observed commentator Richard Calland. (Almost 9,000 words – ed) In this, Ramaphosa revealed a part of his style that is not often chronicled: he is a nerd and a workaholic in the style of former US president Barack Obama. He is bookish as his pages and pages of meticulous but boring accounting to the nation made a diplomat or two sitting near to the media bay fall asleep.
The entire house of Parliament, filled to the brim and attentive in an election year, felt kind of sluggish as Ramaphosa entered the second hour of the speech, articulating the minute detail of his ideas and plans to grow an economy stuck below one percentage point growth and which has unemployment levels so high, it’s a feat of governance that South Africa is not at a point of the Venezuelan crisis. There were important promises and ideas but Ramaphosa wrapped it into a bookish and analytical speech. Even big announcements, like a new e-visa regime, the break-up of Eskom into three utilities, the acknowledgement that government will have to take on some more of Eskom’s guarantees for debt and a new Scorpions-like team, did not come across like the big-bang announcements of a populist politician in an election year.
While these were the big-ticket announcements, there were other equally important social justice pledges: Ramaphosa has again pledged to end the indignities of schools with shocking sanitation; the state will make two years of early childhood development compulsory; taverns and liquor outlets near schools are to be closed.