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Response to the debate

Let’s work together for a better life for all, says Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa repeated his call for South Africans to put aside their differences and work together to build a “new, transformed and sustainable economy” when he delivered his reply to the State of the Nation debate.

Speaking in Parliament on 18 February 2021, Ramaphosa acknowledged that South Africa’s society and economy are battered by unemployment and inequalityt; violence against women and children; state capture, corruption and mismanagement; and by the devastation wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the President pointed to the resilience of the country’s people and urged South Africans to focus on their common purpose.

“We share the same fears and anxieties about our future. We share the same hopes and desires,” he said.

“We all want to provide for our children, and we hope that they will enjoy better lives than we have had. We want safety and shelter. We want work that is dignified and rewarding, and the good health to perform it.

“Throughout the history of our country, there have been those who have tried to divide us, to turn us against one another, to drive us apart. But we have always had more in common than that which divides us,” Ramaphosa said.

The President said that “many valuable contributions and suggestions” had emanated from the debate on the State of the Nation Address, and that criticism that was “sincere and constructive” was welcomed.

“We take these contributions seriously because they enrich our national debate and strengthen our response to the challenges the country faces,” he said.

Vaccination

Turning to the COVID-19 pandemic that has hamstrung the South African economy, Ramaphosa pointed out that he was speaking a day after the country’s national COVID-19 vaccination campaign had begun. Less than 24 hours after the first shipment of usable COVID-19 vaccines landed in South Africa, the first vaccines were administered.

He praised South Africa’s frontline health workers' courage in bolstering the fight against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and thanked “the millions of citizens who, despite the difficulties this pandemic has imposed on them, never lost faith in this country or in the commitment of this government to serve and protect them”.

“We will overcome the coronavirus pandemic. We will rebuild our economy in a manner that is more inclusive, that creates jobs and that lifts people out of poverty. We will put an end to corruption, keep our streets safe and build a state that can effectively serve the people,” he said.

While the national vaccination programme was the government’s first priority, the state-funded relief measures such as the Special COVID-19 grant and the Unemployment Insurance Fund Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Fund were continuing, he said.

People first

South Africa is a country of many endowments, Ramaphosa said. First of these is the nation’s citizens.

In addition to revealing the strength and resilience of the South African people, the pandemic had demonstrated the world-leading capabilities of the country’s scientists, research institutions, universities, agencies and public entities, he said.

Ramaphosa singled out the South African scientists, engineers and manufacturers who had designed and produced personal protective equipment and thousands of medical ventilators “within a matter of months to respond to a desperate need”.

He also singled out the scientists from the University of KwaZulu-Natal who, working with other laboratories, were at the forefront of the genomic surveillance work that led to the identification of new COVID-19 variants, and the South African scientists and researchers at world-class research institutions involved in the management of vaccine trials in the country. Mentioned, too, was Biovac, a public-private partnership, which is using its vaccine storage and distribution infrastructure and capabilities to assist with the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to different vaccination centres.

“These capabilities did not come about by chance. They have been developed over many years, mostly funded with public resources, working together with development partners locally and internationally. Taken together, our national science and innovation system is a hugely valuable resource that we need to further nurture and develop,” he said.

Ramaphosa said he had asked the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, “to put together a team of scientists to begin the process of developing our own vaccines to deal with this and future pandemics”.

The President said there was evidence that pandemics might become more frequent and South Africa needed to ensure it was self-reliant in relation to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

The youth

Ramaphosa congratulated the matric class of 2020, whose final results (state schools) will be released in a week, and commended them for their perseverance and “steadfast commitment to achieving their ambitions”.

Youth development is one of South Africa’s foremost priorities, he said. The high rate of unemployment among young South Africans is unacceptable when they are needed for growing the economy.The government is mapping the services available to young people to identify gaps and target interventions where they are most needed, he said.

The Youth Employment Service, launched in 2018, had created more than 50 000 year-long work opportunities and generated over R2.8-billion in new salaries for young people, and the Employment Tax Incentive had supported more than 1.5-million jobs for young people in the 2019/20 financial year, he said.

Ramaphosa reiterated that maternal health, child nutrition and childhood development are vital to his government’s societal transformation programme. This is why state antiretroviral therapy and programmes for the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission, and early childhood development programmes, are being funded.

Economy

The President said South Africa’s economy is showing signs of strong economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19 and other economic hurdles. Data shows that by October 2020, total employment had recovered to almost reach the level seen in February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold.

“It is these green shoots that we must continue to nurture as we steer the economy towards a full recovery and further growth,” he said.

Ramaphosa admitted to several areas of concern, including a high degree of labour market turnover, women working fewer hours than before the pandemic, rising hunger and evidence of an uneven recovery that is leaving the most vulnerable behind.

The government will be championing women’s employment, because by improving women’s economic status, we can reduce inequality, as well as child hunger and poverty levels, he said.

The pandemic had also underlined the inequalities in healthcare access, underscoring the value of a national health insurance system, Ramaphosa said.

South Africa’s recovery needed to take advantage of the country’s rich natural resources in flora and fauna, which underpin the tourism and agriculture industries, and in minerals, the President said. He added that agricultural development needed to be “aligned with an effective and accelerated land redistribution programme”.

Interventions in tourism – including expediting the e-visa programme – as well as in agriculture and mining are underway, he said. Also, South Africa’s natural resources would be harnessed by the renewable energy industry, in which state power utility Eskom would also play a part.

Furthermore, special economic zones would be used to strengthen the government’s industrialisation drive and to bring development to local areas.

International relations

“Another of our strengths as a country is our position in the global community and on the continent. We are a country at peace with ourselves and the rest of the world,” Ramaphosa said.

The President has recently handed over chairmanship of the African Union to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. During his tenure, he finalised the African Continental Free Trade Area’s establishment and now hopes South African and the rest of the continent will reap its rewards.

Returning to South Africa’s shores, Ramaphosa spoke of the potential that lay within the Hydrogen South Africa strategy, through which the government and its partners have successfully deployed hydrogen fuel cells to provide electricity in schools and to field hospitals established as part of the country's COVID-19 response. “Now, after a decade of investment, we are ready to move from research and development to manufacturing and commercialisation,” he said.

The President ended his speech with a call to focus on South Africa’s strengths and capabilities, saying that too often these are overlooked by South Africans themselves.

“All too often, we find ourselves distracted by the political intrigues of the day. We are too often overcome by the unrelenting pressures of the moment, so that we fail to see the enormous potential that resides within this nation.

“If we fail to see that potential, if we fail to recognise our strengths, then we will fail to seize the opportunities that they present for building a better society,” he said.

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