Parliament – Three months from national elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday set out a long to-do list of priorities, topped by economic growth and saving Eskom, to restore hope and resolve deep-seated ills in South Africa in his second state of the nation address.
Ramaphosa revealed plans to separate the generation, transmission and distribution capacities of the debt-ridden power utility, stressing that its ongoing crisis "could severely damage our economic and social development ambitions".
He said government would give further financial support to Eskom, which has R225 billion in government-guaranteed debt, and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni would give the details when he tables the national budget later this month.
Ramaphosa acknowledged that the depth of trouble at Eskom was such that savings and tariff increases could not stabilise it, and said separating the three arms of Eskom had become inevitable as it would help the company to raise funding in the open market more easily in the future.
"To bring credibility to the turnaround and to position South Africa’s power sector for the future, we shall immediately embark on a process of establishing three separate entities – generation, transmission and distribution – under Eskom Holdings."
He said the independence of the transmission grid was key.
"Of particular and immediate importance is that the entity manages an independent state-owned transmission grid combined with the systems operator and power planning, procurement and buying functions.”
He added that throughout the process, consumers and the national fiscus would be shielded and that the main imperative for government was to revive the economy.
"The task before us is formidable. Above everything else, we must get our economy working again," he said.
"I call upon every South African to make this cause your own. Because when we succeed – and of this we are certain – it is the entire nation that will benefit."
Ramaphosa said the state would address the causes of the slowdown in infrastructure investment, actively seek to widen export markets while lessening reliance on imports and remove barriers that keep small businesses from flourishing. To help achieve the latter, he would sign into law the Competition Amendment Bill.
He said provinces would be pushed to help capitalise on his investment drive and "ensure that we build investment books for each of our nine provinces to present to potential investors".
Also addressing the shortage of housing and the mushrooming of informal settlements, Ramaphosa announced the establishment of a Human Settlements Development Bank in a bid to leverage both public and private sector financing and supplement other aids to clear the housing backlog.
In a speech relentless in detail and can-do optimism, Ramaphosa put education as second on his list of five top priorities.
"Secondly, our history demands that we should improve the education system and develop the skills that we need now and into the future," he said and put the National Student Financial Aid Scheme on sound footing to be able to help students.
Amid sensational revelations of deep-seated corruption that has threatened to embroil him in person, Ramaphosa said it was imperative that swift prosecutions flowed from the investigations into state capture and signalled that the National Prosecuting Authority would again be given an investigative capacity.
It comes almost a decade after the Scorpions were dismantled under his predecessor Jacob Zuma, and replaced by the Hawks that became deeply compromised by political meddling.
"Where there is a basis to prosecute, prosecutions must follow swiftly and stolen public funds must be recovered urgently," he said.
"To this end, we have agreed with the new National Director of Public Prosecutions, that there is an urgent need to establish in the office of the NDPP an investigating directorate dealing with serious corruption and associated offences, in accordance with section 7 of the NPA Act."
The new unit would focus on evidence that has come up before the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture and a host of other inquiries that have delved into maladministration and corruption in the Zuma years.
If there were threats that Ramaphosa would like Zuma to suffer the indignity of heckling by the Economic Freedom Fighters, the president niftily sidestepped those.
He alluded to meetings with EFF leader Julius Malema and his Democratic Alliance counterpart Mmusi Maimane, both who have demanded answers on a half a million rand donation to his campaign in the ANC leadership race from Bosasa, but made light of the content of the talks.
Ramaphosa recalled that when he quoted the lyrics of the Hugh Masekela classic Thuma Mina in his 2018 address, Malema had urged him to sing the song. On Wednesday he bumped into him, and made a deal, he continued.
"We agreed that if the EFF wins the elections and he is installed as the president of South Africa then he will invite me to come up on stage and sing for him."
"By sheer accident", said Ramaphosa, he had also encountered Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane.
"I also recruited him [Maimane] to become a member of the band we are going to form."
On a deeply serious note, Ramaphosa concluded his speech with a reflection that society was filled with tension between black and white, and rich and poor.
"At times it has seemed that the milk of human kindness that allowed us to reconcile in 1994, had gone sour."
He urged South Africans not to give in to defeatism and to fight against everything that threatened to derail what was hailed as a democratic miracle.
"It was the eternal optimism of the human spirit that kept hopes alive during our darkest time. It is this optimism that will carry us forward as we face a brave new future."
After the speech, Maimane slated Ramaphosa for having failed to eject ministers accused of corruption from his Cabinet but a subdued Malema commended him for answering to the accusations he faces on taking campaign funding from Bosasa.
African News Agency/ANA