Terry Bell: SONA déjà vu - was it 'Thabo Mbeki without the poetry'?

The immediate reaction of leading sectors of the labour movement to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address was a reflection of the looming May 8 election. The independent SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) expressed disappointment, concern and cynicism while the ANC-aligned Cosatu "broadly welcomed" the overall thrust of the address.

But for most unionists who have followed these annual addresses over the years, it must have been a case of déjà vu, of having heard it all before. As one wit noted; "It was Thabo Mbeki — without the poetry."

This latter reference summed up what is widely seen, judging by media comments and calls to unionists, as an address offering nothing more than that provided by former President Thabo Mbeki. But he tended to salt his speeches with literary allusions. 

It was also ironic that Ramaphosa chose, as one example of the actions government was taking, to mention doing away with the horror of pit latrines at schools. He noted that there were still 4 000.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Saftu, was quick to pick up on this, pointing out that "Mbeki promised us in 2006 that these pit latrines would be history within five years". Vavi maintains that the country has reached a point of crisis "with 11 million people going to bed hungry" and felt that "more of the same" was grossly inadequate.

At least there is no new acronym for what Ramaphosa called an investment-led path to "shared prosperity through innovation". Over the years since 1994, once the redistributive RDP gave way to GEAR, there has been ASGISSA, the NDP and the NGP, all of which have been labelled justifiably by most unions as "neo-liberal and pro-business". The latest SONA did not deviate from this trajectory.

However, in his reference to dealing with crime and corruption, Ramaphosa mentioned what at least one senior unionist agrees is the possible "return of the Scorpions". This was the specialised crimes unit housed in the directorate of public prosecutions that was disbanded under President Jacob Zuma.

But the doubts raised by prominent economist, Azar Jammine about Ramaphosa being able to "keep his promises" are apparently widely shared. Teacher unions in particular, aware of the lack of training facilities and other resources, will be wary of the promised provision of two years of preschool education for all children.

Ramaphosa’s reference to public/private partnerships and the greater involvement of the private sector also raised among unions the spectre of the P word: privatisation. Cosatu, while "applauding" the commitments to set state-owned enterprises to rights, promptly insisted that "this can be done without privatisation". 

This view is vociferously held by Saftu and its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers. Both are also concerned to know how government intends to deal with the proposed reorganisation of electricity utility, Eskom, into three divisions.

For most unions, however, the 2019 SONA was a clear, technocratic speech that, without reference to "nine wasted years" pledged to remedy the damage done to state institutions and the economy. But the recipes proposed remain based on the refrain that more investment will equal more growth, will equal more jobs, something unions across the board have generally rejected.