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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to deliver State of the Nation address

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a State of the Nation address on Thursday facing demands for a master plan to reverse widening disillusionment with his government. State corruption, a flagging economy, staggering unemployment and rampant crime top a long list of woes facing the former union activist-turned-tycoon. 

In a symbol of the nation’s troubles, Ramaphosa will deliver his annual speech from Cape Town’s city hall, instead of the traditional parliament building. A fire set by an arsonist on January 2 gutted the National Assembly, the symbol of South African democracy.

In years past, the State of the Nation was a glitzy celebration of South Africa’s progress away from its white supremacist past. Lawmakers attended in finery more suited to a Hollywood red carpet.

Some will still attend the session in designer outfits, although these days, exuberant displays of wealth are often seen as a sign of corruption rather than joy.

When Ramaphosa took office in 2018, he inherited from his predecessor Jacob Zuma a government mired in financial sleaze.

‘State capture’

Damning allegations of how Zuma sold control of the state to wealthy individuals and companies have been laid out in a series of investigative reports since January. South Africans call the massive exercise in cronyism “state capture.” 

After a years-long investigation, Constitutional Court judge Raymond Zondo has released more than 1,400 pages of findings, with more still to come.

Zuma was ordered to prison in July after he refused to testify to Zondo’s commission, sparking looting and riots that left more than 350 dead.

The economy, already battered by two years of strict Covid precautions, took another hit and unemployment hit a record high of 34.9 percent, up from 30.8 percent a year ago. Among young people, the rate is a stratospheric 64.4 percent.

Ramaphosa has given few clues about what to expect. His office said the speech “embraces all South Africans and all sectors of society, and reflects the lived experience of all South Africans, regardless of background or political orientation.”

“It also focuses the minds and energies of all South Africans on the values that bind the nation together and on the actions needed to build and sustain our shared future,” the presidency said in a statement.

But a speech riddled with platitudes may fail to reassure a country frightened by rising crime and angered by regular cuts in power supplies. William Gumede, head of the Democracy Works think-tank, said South Africans want to hear how Ramaphosa plans to turn things around.

“He can’t paint a gloomy picture,” Gumede said.

“He really has to give an energetic response, but one that is practical and believable and credible.”

The African National Congress (ANC)

The challenge is that the African National Congress (ANC), in power since the advent of democracy in 1994, is holding its internal elections later this year. The party’s rifts are so bad that an experts’ report into last year’s disturbances said that squabbles were fuelling the risk of turbulence.

“What appears to be factional battles in the African National Congress, have become a serious source of instability in the country,” said the report, which was made public this week.

Ramaphosa will need to ask his party to re-elect him if wants to stay in power. But if he cracks down on corruption, many within the party will be targeted, said Gumede.

“For the sake of the country, he has to prosecute ANC members. But the ANC will oppose any prosecution of members,” he said.

He is due to deliver the speech at 7pm (1700 GMT).