Protecting lives, reforming the economy and saving our democracy

The following speech was delivered by John Steenhuisen MP today during his True State of the Nation Address.

  • Please see attached the DA’s Shadow Cabinet report on the performance of government departments.

My fellow citizens

It is my honour and my pleasure to address you today. Although I have to say I‘d much rather be standing in front of an audience right now than speaking to you through a screen.

There is something about face-to-face human contact on an occasion like this that really affirms what we share and what we have in common as human beings.

But isn’t it also remarkable how quickly we’ve become accustomed to living in isolation and working in isolation? Every time I think about what we – humans, right across the globe – have done this past year to make life possible under these strange new circumstances, I am awestruck.

People are capable of incredible achievements. All these new things we do online today – maintaining social contact, running our offices, shopping, providing services – would not have been imaginable in our wildest dreams a year ago.

But necessity truly is the mother of invention. When presented with something as daunting as a highly infectious airborne virus, humanity stepped up to the plate and found solutions to every single challenge.

And all of this happened immediately, in real time. Without missing a beat, we suddenly had Zoom and Teams meetings for everything. Our homes became offices, classrooms, entertainment spaces and gyms.

The world revolutionised right before our very eyes, and it’s been an incredible thing to witness. And it has afforded me the opportunity to speak to you today.

So even if it is through a screen, I am delighted that you took the time today to listen to me. Hopefully when we do this again next year, I will be able to look some of you in the eye and who knows, maybe even shake your hand afterwards.

In the past we have referred to this address as the Alternative State of the Nation, or ASONA, but I feel that this name does not accurately describe the difference between this summation of where we stand as a nation, and the one you will no doubt hear from President Ramaphosa in a few days’ time.

This here is a truthful assessment of what went wrong, where we now stand, what our realistic prospects for the future are and what we can do to improve this outlook.

Not a sugar-coated version. Not vague rhetoric or spin to conceal the harsh truth. Not lies to cover up wrongdoing. Just the facts. Which is why we’re calling this address the True State of the Nation.

Because, now more than ever, we need an honest assessment of the state of our nation. And you will almost certainly not get this from the President on 11 February. He will underplay our economic crisis, he will overplay government’s Covid response and he will outright lie about our vaccine plan.

The hard truth is that we are a nation in a crisis on three fronts.

Firstly, we’re in a Covid crisis, from which the only way out is the immediate rollout of a massive vaccination programme.

Secondly, we’re in an economic crisis, and here the only way out is a raft of urgent and bold economic reforms.

And thirdly, we’re in a crisis of democracy, as the recent shocking testimony at the Zondo Commission has revealed. And the only immediate way out of this crisis, if we’re brutally honest, is for our government to resign in shame.

However, we can say with near certainty that none of these three things is going to happen right away.

While we’re still waiting for a full, detailed vaccination plan from the president, we do know that we won’t have nearly enough vaccines in time to prevent a third and possibly a fourth wave of the virus from running through our country.

This leaves the prospect of further lockdowns looming over our already shattered economy. That will most certainly bring on a sovereign debt crisis, along with another wave of job losses, and extraordinary human suffering and deprivation.

We know that almost everything the President said about his government’s efforts to procure vaccines has been a distortion of the truth to create the impression that they’ve been busy for the past six months, while in reality they only woke up in January.

We already knew this from statements made by the vaccine suppliers themselves, but this was confirmed in a letter from the Department of Health to Treasury in which it requested a deviation from normal procurement procedures in order to acquire vaccines. That letter was only sent on 7 January this year.

When the President spoke in his televised address about the arrival of the various different vaccines, he deliberately kept the details vague by simply stating when delivery of each vaccine would commence.

What he didn’t tell us is how many of these vaccines would arrive on these commencement dates. However, those details were contained in a presentation made by the Health Minister to Cabinet, which shows that the bulk of these will only be arriving in October, November and December, with some only getting here next year.

So when the president tells of plans to vaccinate two-thirds of the population by the end of the year, even if we could launch a programme that could target in excess of 100,000 vaccine shots a day, we simply won’t have the vaccines to cover even half that target.

This is not because all those other bad countries hoarded the vaccines so we couldn’t buy them, as President Ramaphosa tried to spin it when speaking to the WEF crowd. It’s because we were simply nowhere when they were all queuing back in May, June and July 2020.

The failure to procure vaccines when they were available to us, and the failure to publish a detailed and transparent rollout plan are a violation of government’s constitutional obligations.

We have asked the High Court to compel government to make public all their dealings with vaccine suppliers as well as their rollout plan, as they had to do twenty years ago when the TAC took them to court to get clarity on their antiretroviral plan.

It is critical that we get our country’s vaccination programme on track as soon as we can.

We now have an enormous amount of lost ground to make up on other countries, some of which will be looking to wrap up their vaccination programmes as we’re only getting started.

We don’t have a choice but to try and make up this ground, because we have no time to waste in opening up our economy so that we can start to reverse our massive job losses.

That brings me to the other big story that has been dominating our news cycle: The crisis in our democracy brought about by the bombshell testimony at the Zondo Commission.

In a properly functioning democracy, this would’ve prompted the resignation of a government.

Using taxpayer funds to secretly pay for propaganda news reporting, to sway the judiciary, to destabilise the government of the opposition and to carry on enriching the disgraced former president is a scandal so large that for any government other than the ANC it would have spelled the end.

Even the National Party government of BJ Vorster back in the 1970’s was forced into shameful resignations when they were exposed for having run an almost identical state-funded propaganda programme.

Even the morally bankrupt Richard Nixon stepped down in disgrace after the Watergate scandal.

And just last month the whole government of the Netherlands resigned in disgrace in the wake of a child welfare scandal that saw thousands of families wrongly accused of welfare fraud.

That’s what it looks like when the weight of shame makes your position in government untenable.

It is inconceivable that, in a functioning, accountable democracy, a governing party that has been exposed for doing what the ANC has done would remain in office.

Forget for a moment about the Arms Deal and the Guptas and Bosasa and Nkandla and the recent PPE feeding frenzy. Each of those on its own should have ended this government, but let’s pretend they never happened.

What went on over the course of a decade at the State Security Agency with billions of Rands of public funds is nothing short of treason. If a revelation of this nature and magnitude does not trigger resignations, or at the very least dismissals, we have a fundamental flaw in our democracy.

But there were no dismissals. And I’m not talking about now, in the wake of Sydney Mufamadi’s testimony at the Zondo Commission. I’m talk about back in 2018, when his High Level Panel Report was handed to President Ramaphosa.

The president knew, back then, what was going on and who was implicated. And instead of firing the likes of David Mahlobo and Arthur Fraser, he found jobs for them in his administration.

Whenever someone tries to tell you about the so-called good ANC trying to fight back against the so-called bad ANC, just remind yourself of this story.

President Ramaphosa was given a report that spelt out, in great detail, the biggest scandal his government had ever been involved in. In this report he was given a recommendation to set up a task team to further unpack the events of the scandal, as well a recommendation that he instruct law enforcement bodies to investigate and charge those involved.

That was almost three years ago. And not only did Ramaphosa not follow these recommendations, he redeployed the main suspects in his own government. He knew every single detail of what David Mahlobo had done, and he still gave him a post in his cabinet.

Fast-forward three years later to the Zondo Commission where all these sordid details are revealed, and we see State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo desperately trying to prevent her acting director general, Loyiso Jafta, from spilling any further beans.

And it turns out, entirely unsurprisingly, that Dlodlo was doing so with the blessing of President Ramaphosa.

There is no good and bad ANC. There is only one ANC, and it does not want you to know what it’s been up to with your money because it reeks of treason.

If the checks and balances of our democracy had functioned as they should, the ANC would not survive this scandal.

But there is an even bigger issue than the State Security Agency saga that needs to be tackled at Zondo – an issue that sits at the very heart of every crisis and failure in our country.

Last week I submitted a list of questions to the Commission and requested that these be put to President Ramaphosa when he appears. Because until we deal decisively with this issue, we will not solve anything else in our country.

I’m talking, of course, of the capture of the South African state. Or, as the ANC likes to call it, cadre deployment.

You see, there is a commonly held misconception that the idea of state capture is something that began and ended with Zuma and the Guptas, and that this chapter is now behind us.

But that’s entirely wrong. The Guptas didn’t capture the state through Zuma and his allies in the ANC. The capturing part had happened a long time ago. What the Guptas did was simply to loot this captured state with the help of a weak and greedy president.

They were simply opportunists who spotted a gap to siphon money off state contracts, and in Zuma they found their useful inside man – a crooked security guard who would let them into the vault.

None of that would have been possible had the state not already been captured by the ANC. And that project had started all the way back in 1997, at the party’s Mafikeng Conference where the policy of cadre deployment was officially adopted.

Cadre deployment doesn’t even try to disguise its objectives. It states upfront that the aim is to extend ANC control over all levers of power in the state. This includes the civil service, all state-owned entities, the Reserve Bank, the NPA and SARS, the electoral commission, as well as Chapter Nine institutions such as the Public Protector and the Human Rights Commission.

Shortly after adopting this policy the ANC even boasted about its power to transform the judiciary and the office of the Auditor General without needing constitutional changes.

With no hint of shame or recognition of wrongdoing, the ANC freely admitted that this was a project intended to subvert the essential democratic principle of the separation of party and state.

It has been allowed to continue, unabated, for the past 23 years, resulting in virtually every problem we face today.

Because the only criteria for deployment is loyalty to the party, our state has been completely hollowed out and is today just an empty husk of ANC yes-men and women, devoid not only of skills but also of the crucial ethos of service to one’s country.

Cadre deployment has entrenched a culture of impunity, as those who fail at their jobs or who are caught stealing from the public are simply redeployed elsewhere.

And because ANC loyalists have been parachuted in to the top of the NPA, SAPS, the Hawks and SARS, every single check and balance on the abuse of power has been weakened.

The ineffective are rewarding themselves, the incompetent are assessing themselves and the corrupt are policing themselves.

And all the while this army of well paid deployed cadres just grows and grows until the state is so bloated and so top-heavy with people adding no value at all, that it simply ceases to function.

Allow this to continue for more than two decades, and you end up where we are today: a broken state incapable of delivering on even the most basic of its obligations to the people.

Every single problem in our country stems from this capture of the state by the ANC.

Every parastatal that has collapsed – or is in the process of doing so – is because it has been captured through cadre deployment, mismanaged and ultimately looted dry.

Every broken health department and every dysfunctional education department across eight of our nine provinces can trace its demise directly back to the calibre of the cadres deployed to its leadership.

Our inability in this country to bring crime under control, or to manage and protect our rail infrastructure, or to run local governments with even a semblance of competence are all because of this state capture project of the ANC.

And when we need to see some accountability for all of this – when we need to secure prosecutions for the looting of the state – cadre deployment once again trips us up because the foxes have been deployed to guard the henhouse.

If we want to be honest and realistic about the challenges we face in this country, we need to learn to connect all the dots.

For some reason, most analysis stops just short of connecting the most critical of all dots, and that is the role of the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment in the economic, social and governance collapse we see today.

More than enough has been written about government’s poor policy decisions, or weak leadership, or systemic corruption. But there is very little analysis that takes one more step back to see the full picture and the reason for all these failings.

We cannot correct our course until we see cadre deployment for what it is – state capture – and abandon it for good.

But not only do we need to correctly identify the ANC’s state capture as the genesis of our country’s slide towards a failed state, we also need to correctly identify all those responsible for it.

Believing in a supposed good faction of the ANC that had no part in this state capture is nothing but naïve wishful thinking.

No one has been more central to the deployment of party loyalists to positions in the state over the past decade than Cyril Ramaphosa himself.

He headed up the ANC’s Cadre Deployment Committee from 2014 to 2018, when he took over the presidency from Jacob Zuma. During this time some of the very worst appointments were made to our SOEs and public service, and corruption skyrocketed.

It is imperative that Ramaphosa answers the questions we sent to the Zondo Commission. South Africans need to know what his role was in the capture of the state, and where he stands on the policy today.

He will need to accept responsibility for every deployment that happened on his watch.

Once he has done this, he will have a chance to denounce the practice and inform South Africans that he intends to guide his party towards a true meritocracy, free from political manipulation.

He needs to state, unambiguously, whether the ANC under his leadership chooses the separation of party and state, or whether they still view the state as an extension of the ANC.

He cannot hide behind a public good-guy persona while continuing to cripple our state behind closed doors.

And while he’s clearing up his stance on cadre deployment, he also needs to speak up on the recent utterances of Ace Magashule on Jacob Zuma and his defiance of the Zondo Commission.

It is unthinkable that the Secretary General of the ANC can publicly support Zuma in defying the Zondo Commission, and the president of his party has nothing to say on the matter.

In the absence of a statement from the president, people will fill in the blanks themselves. And the only inference to be drawn from this is that the ANC itself supports Zuma in snubbing the Zondo Commission, the Constitutional Court, and the rule of law.

If that’s not the case, then Ramaphosa needs to set the record straight.

Fellow citizens,

All of these things – rolling out a massive vaccination programme so that our economy can open up fully, demanding accountability and repercussions for the Zondo bombshells, and turning our backs on cadre deployment once and for all – are critical if we want to tackle our biggest challenge: our stalled economy.

We cannot begin to do so if we are to remain in lockdown limbo forever.

We cannot begin to do so if the looters of our state remain safely in their positions.

We cannot begin to do so if we don’t start building a merit-based, apolitical state right away.

And we simply have no more time to waste. We have run out of road, as every single economist and analyst will tell you.

The shortfall in our revenue of over R300bn is going to have to come from somewhere, and tax increases are not the answer, as these will not generate increased revenue.

We are projected, according to the borrowing figures in last year’s budget, to reach a national debt of R4.5 trillion in two years’ time, and some call that a best-case-scenario estimate.

And a broad unemployment rate of over 40% and climbing every day is a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Anyone can see that South Africa is in a tremendous predicament, the full scope of which even the most informed experts and commentators sometimes struggle to adequately express.

We are in deep, deep trouble, and we don’t seem to be making any of the right moves to get ourselves out of it.

Yes, I know we are not alone.

Many countries across the world are facing very trying times along with us. Everyone has suffered enormous setbacks and is now grappling to find a way forward that best protects its people from both disease and economic hardship.

Our job losses and economic contraction are very severe, but there are other countries out there with similar numbers.

But the difference between us and most of those countries is the ability to absorb the impact and bounce back.

Where other countries that imposed severe and extended lockdowns were largely able to cushion the blow for affected businesses and furloughed or retrenched employees, we simply did not have the money.

The TERS and UIF fiasco was entirely predictable, as was the paltry size of the special Covid grant.

People who lost everything in the lockdown had nowhere to turn for help. Government simply held up its hands and said: Sorry, the money is all gone.

And then, instead of seeing the devastation caused by the lockdown and easing up, government spent ten months tightening the screws with measures that had absolutely no basis in science and no impact on restricting the virus. Measures that made them look busy and in control, but which wreaked havoc in our economy.

It’s not the pandemic that ruined thousands of businesses, as some would have you believe. It was regulation after senseless regulation, and one extension after another of bans that crippled our entire hospitality and tourism sectors.

I spoke earlier of how we’ve become isolated from each other during the past year. But I don’t only mean a personal isolation of friends and colleagues. Our isolation has also been as a society. Being cut off, we have often missed the big picture as it plays out in the streets of our towns and cities.

We may have heard every day in the news of the carnage in our economy, but for many it remained an abstract concept. If you weren’t out there to witness it for yourself, it was hard to imagine the scale of the devastation.

So let me tell you about it. I drove back to Cape Town at the end of last year along the R62 – that famous road-trip drive that connects Oudtshoorn with Montague through towns like Calitzdorp, Ladismith and Barrydale.

If you’ve ever driven out on the R62, you’ll know that these little towns are a must-see on a Western Cape holiday, each with its own unique character and flavour.

Apart from the agriculture in the region, they survive almost entirely on the business brought in by travelers.

What I saw when I drove through these towns in December was just heart breaking.

Shop after shop, restaurant after restaurant, were closed and boarded up. Barrydale, normally abuzz with travelling families and bikers in its many little eateries that line the road, was a ghost town.

Very few of those businesses would ever open again, and everyone who earned a living from them – cashiers, waiters, kitchen staff, cleaners – had suddenly become destitute.

There is no news report or statistic that can properly convey the scale of this devastation. You have to see it.

This has been happening in every town and city across the country.

And it hasn’t been confined to small businesses either. Just in the last few days we heard of Greyhound, Citiliner and Ster Kinekor either closing their doors or going into business rescue.

We heard of massive investments cancelled by South African Breweries and Consol Glass, and we heard of scores of retrenchments across all sectors of the economy.

Holding up our job losses or our economic contraction against countries like The United Kingdom or Japan does not provide a useful comparison, because we simply don’t have their reserves to survive and outlast this.

The only thing we can do is immediately open up our entire economy, keeping people as safe as is humanly possible, and then start with a programme of aggressive economic reform.

This is where the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa and Tito Mboweni are going to have to make a big choice between the unity of their party and the progress of their country. It’s one or the other.

They’re going to have to choose between either the outdated 20th century ideology of state control that has tied us to a low growth path for decades, or a loosening of the state’s grip so that the private sector can thrive.

They’re going to have to choose between either bending the knee to the unions, or embracing labour reforms to make South Africa an attractive investment destination.

They’re going to have to choose between spiraling national debt with the prospect of a default looming on the horizon, or a debt stabilisation programme to cap this at a manageable level.

They’re going to have to choose between a government monopoly on energy supply with all its loadshedding and spiraling costs, or an energy market that is open to far more independent power suppliers and competition.

They’re going to have to choose between the crippling effects of B-BBEE, or a version of empowerment that doesn’t chase away investments and actually targets those in need of redress.

They’re going to have to choose between Expropriation Without Compensation, or property rights.

In short, they’re going to choose between party and country. And this is something they’ve never been able to get right.

But we dare not lose hope. We simply have to keep plugging away with what we know are the sensible and achievable solutions to reform our economy, and then hope that our message finds fertile soil among a critical mass of South Africans, including some of those in the ruling party.

I am convinced that there are enough South Africans who share the same values and the same vision for our country, but that we simply have not found a way to discover each other yet.

Right now we’re spread across different parties, or perhaps some of us have even lost faith in the democratic process altogether. And so we remain largely invisible to each other.

But if we are to wrest our country from those who have hijacked it for their own gain, we are going to have to find each other.

We are going to have to look past old political allegiances and all the other things that still push us into separate little boxes, like race and language and culture. Because underneath all those superficial things, many of us share a dream for South Africa.

I have long held that our political landscape is due for a shake-up – a breaking up of the continents to realign in new landmasses.

I don’t believe our current alignments accurately reflect the values we all hold as South Africans. I think there is enormous potential for a realignment around the meaningful things that bring us and bind us together – values, principles, vision – rather than our superficial identities.

If we can do this, then I think we will find that those of us who want an honest government, those of us who want a vibrant, growing economy, those of us who want the dignity of a job, those of us who want our children to be safe and well educated, those of us who believe in one set of laws for everyone, those of us who believe that we are so much more than the colour of our skin – we will be in the majority.

So let us go out and find each other before our country has suffered too much damage for us to be able to fix it.

Let us discover who the reformers are in our country, no matter what political party they currently call home.

Let us build a new majority around the things that truly matter.

Sooner or later we will emerge from this pandemic. We will return to our schools and our universities and our workplaces and our sports stadiums.

We will get back every freedom that was taken away, and more.

So let us do all we can to ensure that we have a country and an economy worth returning to.

Thank you.