When Elephants Fight – A young activist’s reflections on SONA 2020

Written by: KayDee Mashile

It is said that “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”, this is was evident at the 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Prior to the SONA, Business Insider reported that the rand was weakening in anticipation of the SONA. This, perhaps, was attributed to the impending announcement of the gravity of the state’s wounds in terms of the situation in State Owned Entities such as Eskom and SA Airways. These being two of the state’s bleeding wounds. While the President’s address had been long anticipated, members of parliament were in no hurry to allow the President to speak. Even though every moment that passed put a dent in the pockets of tax payers. This leads to the question, how much does the SONA really cost.

In the past 5 years, the SONA budget has dropped significantly. However, it is still a costly exercise. In 2015, the SONA cost R3.1m against a budget of R4.1m while the 2016 SONA cost R2m out of a R3.9m budget. In 2017, R4m was budgeted and only R2.3m was used and in 2018, only R1.9 was spent out of the R4.7m budget. In 2019, President Ramaphosa’s first SONA was the cheapest at a price tag of R1.6m against a budget of R2.5m and the 2020 SONA had been expected to be even cheaper with a R2.1m budget. The lowest SONA budget in 5 years.

Could it possibly be that the smooth running of the 2019 SONA contributed to the low price tag? If so, to what extent would the delay that took place last week affect the budget for the SONA? Should my speculations be inaccurate, we cannot deny that having members of parliament intentionally delay the State of the Nation Address does not affect us in more grave ways than the couple of laughs it gives us. Will we ever know the result of the damage that may have been caused by the “elephant fight” that took place at the 2020 SONA? Think grass root level.

One thing that all the people of South Africa are currently affected by is the issue of load shedding, which both the President of the republic and the Commander of the EFF spoke of with a sense of urgency. When told to honour the rights of the people of South Africa by letting the President deliver his speech, Julius Malema replied that the people of South Africa would not be able to watch the speech anyway because they had no electricity. Humorous as it may have been, it was a statement that may have been true for many households at that moment.

The President, in his speech, also acknowledged the fact that load shedding is costing people too much to be ignored. He briefly explained the reason behind load shedding, that being the maintenance of the coal mills that Eskom uses to generate electricity. And because this is a process that we cannot avoid, he said, Eskom would be required to ensure that the load shedding schedule is both convenient and predictable. And these are two things that have never been synonymous with load shedding. Unmistakably, the few days that followed the SONA were darkened with many unpredictable powerless moments.

The President also mentioned that many other means of generating electricity would be implemented in efforts to bring a sustainable solution to this issue. He did not, however, mention any timelines for either one of the strategies. Be it the sanctioning of Eskom or the implementation of alternative electricity generating measures.

Another highlight from the SONA was that of salvaging the issue of SA Airways where many people are faced with impending job loss. Another sign of the grass suffering on the account of management issues that are beyond their control. To this, the President said that business rescue practitioners were expected to give a report in a few weeks. In the interests of the SA aviation industry and the South African economy, he added, is it essential that the airline is sustainable and not dependant on state funding.

On a more grassroots-level, the President also mentioned the intention to modernise the railway network. To which he mentioned that the government would be investing R4.1b to repair and upgrade the Central Line in Cape Town and the Mabopane line in Pretoria. Moreover, the President announced that 9 new TVET college campuses would be built this year. This being in response to the shortage of training spaces in rural areas. Various occupation-orientated programmes are also being implemented to improve the quality and relevance of our educational outcomes, the President reported.

These are only a few of the many important pledges that the President, essentially, made to the country at the 2020 SONA. These are pledges that we can hold the government accountable to. So, to this I say, when the National Assembly becomes a circus, it does not only rob ordinary citizens off their right to be informed, it also robs us of the opportunity to follow up and hold the relevant parties accountable. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister of Finance and how these promises will feature in the national budget and- from the SONA debate- I am interested in finding out what the projected timelines are.

What the 2020 SONA left me thinking of is that we need to move beyond party politics if we are to build a sustainable country. In fact, we cannot afford party politics anymore. Because, if we set up the ruling party for failure, we inevitably setting up the citizens of the country for the worst consequences. In all we do as activists and leaders in our own rights, we ought to always think of those who are at grassroots level suffering for the seemingly harmless behaviour and misunderstandings of our leaders  and try to minimize that harm.



ACTIVATE! is a network of young leaders equipped to drive change for the public good across South Africa. Connecting youth who have the skills, sense of self and spark to address tough challenges and initiate innovative and creative solutions that can reshape our society.

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