Source: Financial Mail

 This, Mr Ramaphosa, is the real state of the nation

In towns and cities visited by the FM, the stories we were told were of a bracing reality at odds with the fanciful tale of progress espoused by President Cyril Ramaphosa. For how long can the ANC avoid the truth?


Lawrence Mabote is frustrated. His two children, aged seven and eight, can’t understand why they can’t flush the toilet inside his home, on the outskirts of the rural town of Ditsobotla in North West.

“It is hard to explain to the children that the toilet can’t flush —  there is no water,” he says. 

Mabote’s household saves every drop of water it can to flush the toilet. The water is bought off the back of a bakkie — R5 for 20l. When dishes are washed, their water is recycled and used again, including for washing clothes. What’s left of this water ultimately ends up in the toilet. 

It’s the sort of compromise that so many South Africans know far too well, but a reality that so many of our government leaders can’t even fathom.

Instead, year after year, the sitting South African president delivers the government’s priorities in a glitzy state of the nation address (Sona) at parliament. It’s an unseemly affair — all pomp and ceremony, in stark contrast to the abhorrent levels of poverty and failed government promises to people like Mabote.

It’s a charade of responsive government: each year, a bucket of promises are made, then replaced the following year with a shiny new set of pledges, without so much as a backward glance at what was left unachieved.

Back in June 2019, for example, President Cyril Ramaphosa told parliament that local government would be one of his seven priorities. Attention would be focused on districts to speed up service delivery and ensure councils had enough resources. The idea was to ensure co-operation between the different spheres of government, so national and provincial governments could support failing municipalities such as Ditsobotla.

Yet here we are, four years later, and there’s been little progress. If anything, most of the country’s municipalities have worsened.

Take Ditsobotla. Mabote has lived there since 1998 — but it’s only in the past decade that he’s really been struck by the collapse of services. It has been five years now since he and his family have had a regular water supply. In other words, since Ramaphosa’s grand announcement in 2019, nothing has changed for the better.

“There is no service delivery here in Lichtenburg [the administrative centre of Ditsobotla],  all we get is promises,” he tells the FM. “Yesterday the council had a meeting and brought [in] a water contractor. They told us they will be installing and fixing water pipes. We will see. They have made this promise before.”

Their lives pay testament to the broken promise of “a better life for all” — the ANC’s election pledge when it took power in 1994.

Mabote’s wife sells Tupperware in an informal market near the local municipal building. Yet, behind her stall, the municipal park is pockmarked by ever-expanding piles of uncollected, dumped garbage.

That’s no surprise to any of the residents: refuse removal has all but stopped in Ditsobotla.

Nicolas Maite, who describes himself as the chair of the informal traders, speaks to the FM above the blaring of his generator-powered radio. A resident dances in the street — but the fanfare masks the deep unhappiness of traders and residents. 

“As you can see, all of us use generators — the shops, even me here selling my CDs,” says Maite, who has lived in the area for 19 years. “There is no electricity, no water. The roads are damaged, but we just try to keep going.”

Noxala Mafela, who owns a hairdressing salon, has had enough. She’s thinking of leaving.

Those with money have to some extent been able to insulate themselves from this municipal meltdown. They’ve drilled boreholes, installed solar power and they drive large four-by-fours to get around the enormous potholes. But that’s not most people’s existence: the majority live in the shadow of the local government’s abject failure to deliver services.

Broken taps run dry

Mabote describes the experience of just one municipality in North West. But travel further north to Limpopo, and entire swathes of the province remain crippled by a sewerage crisis that rippled through towns last year.

It still hasn’t been resolved. Even when the affected communities begged the South African Human Rights Commission for help, the local municipality continued to ignore their pleas.

These, obviously, aren’t the stories Ramaphosa will tell in his Sona, even if this is the reality for millions of people who voted for the ANC.

Not that things are too much better in the big cities. Government failure is tangible in the power and water outages in well-heeled suburbs in Joburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni too.

But it’s an indictment that 30 years into democracy, millions of people in informal settlements still struggle to access water and sanitation, according to service delivery monitoring group Asivikelane. 

“One of the biggest challenges affecting access to basic sanitation in informal settlements is poor repairs and maintenance,” Phumeza Mlungwana, head of strategy for the International Budget Partnership SA, part of the Asivikelane campaign, tells the FM.

“While there are informal settlements with no access to taps and toilets, several settlements have fewer taps and toilets to the ratio of residents [than before]. What is worse is that the majority of these are unusable because they are either broken or blocked.”

The organisation estimates that more than 10-million people live in informal settlements.  In a 2021 study, Asivikelane found that 45% of residents in informal settlements in metros — including the City of Cape Town — said that when taps or toilets broke, they were just never fixed.

In her most recent report on municipal finances, auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke recounted how the constitution envisages people having “access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, refuse services, and good roads and infrastructure”. 

This, Maluleke said, is meant to be a country where elected representatives ensure that the rates and taxes people pay, and the funds provided by the government for services and infrastructure, are accounted for and used properly.

“Sadly, this is not the lived reality of most citizens in the country,” she said. “Local government is characterised by accountability and service delivery failures, poor governance, weak institutional capacity and instability.”

It’s a stark illustration that the government is getting the basics wrong — and faring even worse when it comes to the more complex tasks at hand.

Deeper into junk

Consider the economy: it has performed poorly in nearly every important dimension during Ramaphosa’s first term.

To be fair, Ramaphosa inherited an economy that had been losing momentum since the 2008 global financial crisis. But, despite the high hopes and higher promises, he’s made little progress in tackling South Africa’s structural constraints.

On many metrics, in fact, the economy has slid backwards since he took over.

In 2018, Ramaphosa could have capitalised on the burst of euphoria that his appointment unleashed by embarking on a series of rapid, bold reforms. Instead, his presidency has been a story of timidity, political expediency and a slow-puncture economic decline.

He has presided over a decline in fixed investment (gross fixed capital formation) from about 16.4% of GDP when he was elected, to 14% now. As a rule of thumb, countries need a ratio of at least 25% to achieve rapid, sustainable growth.

This slide partly reflects the collapse of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which slashed their investment in infrastructure by almost 30% — a drop of R37bn — over the past five years. That’s despite the billions in state bailouts each year.

The bleeding SOEs have been a big drag on growth, but also on public finances. Debt, for instance, has rocketed: South Africa’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio has climbed from about 53% to around 71% over the past five years — key to the country’s slide deeper into junk status.

Covid obviously made things worse, but the level of public spending has long exceeded the economy’s ability to grow. Were it not for the face-saving commodity boom — which helped to boost mining-related taxes to over R100bn in 2021/2022 — South Africa’s debt ratio would be about 80%.

In short, despite coming through the pandemic better than expected, the economy is now wedged in a low-growth, low-confidence trap due to the government’s failure to get on top of South Africa’s structural shortcomings. It’s a long list, but it includes a weak, costly national logistics system (for rail, ports and energy), a dysfunctional education system that isn’t producing the skills we need, and an ineffective and corrupt state — including at local level.

Ann Bernstein, executive director at the Centre for Development & Enterprise, says it’s time to let go of the idea of Ramaphosa as a “reformer president”.

“[He] presented himself as a reformer and there were many people desperate to believe this,” she says. 

“Sadly, the notion of the current president as a reformer is no longer credible. In fact, it is a mirage. The time is long overdue for everyone … to think differently and strategically if we are to get the country back on track.”

While Ramaphosa will have strode down a cordoned-off Cape Town street this week to again announce his administration’s agenda in silken prose, this would be akin to slathering lipstick on a pig.

As the president speaks of smart cities and other pie-in-the-sky dreams, citizens from Ditsobotla to Vredeshoop will have a more jaundiced take. And it’s an illustration of the discernible mood of widespread disillusion that is slowly creeping across the country.

These are people who are powerless due to rolling blackouts; who are queuing for water that’s being sold to them at R1/l; where young girls are barred from using a toilet in their homes because of a broken and mismanaged water and sewerage system. This is a world where gangsters have hijacked service delivery, stealing outright from hospitals and selling medicine back to doctors at an exorbitant cost; where municipal buildings are stripped to the bone, animal carcasses are piled high in the corners of recreational parks, and pavements are buried under uncollected rubbish.

This is what you’d see when the cameras pan away from the benches of parliament and the coterie of ANC comrades, applauding as if their jobs depend on it.

This, Mr Ramaphosa, is the real state of the nation.