In a pivotal state-of-the-nation address, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to revamp the nation’s healthcare, extend welfare grants, and address energy and logistics crises ahead of the upcoming elections. Despite lauding achievements, he faces the ANC’s declining popularity. Ramaphosa hinted at climate initiatives but refrained from major announcements. Facing challenges like unemployment and power shortages, he assured energy reforms and improvements in logistics. However, critics question the implementation of past promises, setting the stage for a crucial election year.
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By S’thembile Cele and Paul Vecchiatto
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged to overhaul the nation’s health-care system, extend welfare grants and tackle the energy and logistics crises as the country prepares for the tightest elections since apartheid ended.
In his state-of-the-nation address to lawmakers in Cape Town on Thursday, Ramaphosa lauded the achievements of the African National Congress-led government. He said it’s made strides in broadening access to education and health care, and opened up opportunities to Black South Africans who were denied them during White-minority rule. He steered clear of announcing any major new initiatives, besides the establishment of a new climate-change response fund.
“We have transformed the lives of millions of South Africans, providing the necessities of life and created opportunities that never existed for them before,” he said. “We cannot deny the progress South Africans have made over the last 30 years, nor should we diminish the severe challenges that we continue to face.”
A series of recent opinion polls show the ANC risks losing its national majority, which would force it into a coalition with one or more rivals if it’s to continue governing Africa’s most-industrialized economy.
The party, which led the fight against apartheid and has held power since 1994, garnered 57.5% of the vote in the last national election in 2019, but its shortcomings in tackling rampant poverty, unemployment and crime, and ending rolling blackouts, have eroded its support. The economy grew by an average of less than 1% over the past decade and the jobless rate stands at about 32%, official data show.
The president didn’t announce a date for the vote in his speech, despite widespread speculation that he would. His spokesman said Wednesday an announcement will be made by Feb. 23.
Ramaphosa also didn’t pronounce on whether he will sign off on the controversial National Health Insurance Bill. The legislation seeks to facilitate the provision of universal access to health care through a centrally managed government fund that buys services and medicines from public and private providers. The new system will be implemented incrementally, he said.
Business groups and opposition parties say the law erodes the constitutional rights of both patients and health-care professionals and have pledged to challenge it in court if it’s adopted in its current form.
The president did commit to extending and improving the system whereby welfare grants are paid to the unemployed. The monthly stipends were initially introduced to cushion citizens against the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
The National Treasury has called for a comprehensive review of the entire welfare system and warned that the income grants are unsustainable unless new sources of revenue are found, but the ANC has insisted that an extension to the stipends is non-negotiable.
While South Africa endured record blackouts last year, some lasting as long as 12 hours a day, because state utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. couldn’t keep pace with demand for electricity from its old and poorly maintained plants, Ramaphosa said an end to the crisis was in sight.
“We are reforming our energy system to make it more competitive, sustainable and reliable into the future,” he said.
The president also gave assurances that measures were being taken to improve the performance of the freight-rail network and the nation’s ports to address complaints from mining companies and farmers that they can’t get sufficient volumes of their goods to market.
Ramaphosa has come under fire for failing to deliver on previous promises he’s made since he took over as president from Jacob Zuma, whose nine-year tenure was marred by a series of corruption scandals and was forced to step down in 2018 to stem a loss of support.
His previous keynote address have included ambitious plans to build bullet trains and smart cities that never materialized, while his goals of firing up the economy and creating millions of jobs were derailed by the pandemic and the energy crisis.
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