As President Cyril Ramaphosa geared up to deliver his 2022 State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday Feb. 10, citizens used the national event as an opportunity to call for the government’s action on several key issues.
With placards in hand, they showed up in numbers within their distinctive groups, protesting the current state of the country just hours before the president was set to make his address.
For the first time in the country’s democratic history, this year’s SONA took place outside of South Africa’s parliament, at the Cape Town City Hall, due to a fire at the national building that caused significant damage at the beginning of the year. As such, protesters were situated closer to the action and just across the street from the Members of Parliament and the president as they prepared to hear the national speech.
Some called for better child welfare and support for education, others called for the president to speak up on the ongoing violence occurring across the border in Eswatini. Some appealed for the protection of local communities against crime, and others wanted the president to hear their pleas for the long term implementation of an essential social grant for unemployed South Africans.
Representing the Eswatini People’s Liberation Movement, demonstrator Vusi Shongwe said: “As Cyril Ramaphosa presents his SONA, he must remember the matter of Eswatini… We ask Ramaphosa to take matters forward in his SONA, and I am here to speak for 1.3 million Eswatini citizens who are yearning to live in a democratic country.”
Shongwe is referring to the Eswatini protests and violence that have been ongoing since June 2021, where citizens have been calling for the monarchy to be dissolved as a result of corruption and growing inequality in the country. South Africa and Eswatini are closely linked as the Kingdom is landlocked within the country.
There was a clear plea overall for access to employment, as well as the continued access to the Social Relief of Distress Grant that was implemented at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. South Africa’s inequality divide has deepened as a result of the pandemic, as the country experienced the loss of millions of jobs following national lockdowns.
While there were calls for the extension of the relief grant, citizens and Members of Parliament in opposition parties noted also that the R350 a month rationed out to South Africans in need is simply not enough. The grant itself has been a temporary solution to a critical issue that the country is dealing with — with South Africa having the highest unemployment rate in the world as of 2021.
Speaking to eNCA ahead of the event, Nkululeko Majozi of the Studies of Poverty and Inequality Institute, noted what is needed for the president to address the issue.
“We expect him to make mention of a move to introduce a basic income grant on a permanent basis to help South Africans and provide basic income support to South Africans,” he said. “The argument that the state cannot afford a Basic Income Grant is a false argument, it’s a myth, it’s not based on any researched evidence.”
Members of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) used their voices to demand an increase in basic income grants as they picketed outside the national event.
Saftu spokesperson Trevor Shaku said: “Saftu reiterates its call for the monthly basic income grant of R1,500. President Ramaphosa must listen to the cries of anguish and feel the plight of our people, not take ersatz advice from a group of privileged neoliberal economists.”
One of the loudest voices to be heard at the protest was the unified voice of the Walking Bus Initiative, a large volunteer group aimed at protecting children and their access to education.
The group used to be financially supported by the Cape Town government, however, following the 2021 regional elections that saw the city gain a new mayor, support for the group has allegedly decreased significantly. This prompted citizens to demonstrate ahead of SONA in a call for financial support and recognition by the regional government.
“Tata, please help us with permanent employment,” representative of the initiative, Ntombise Simelani said to the Times in a plea to the president. “We are here because we were part of the Walking Bus project since 2016 on a voluntary basis. The new mayor wants to get rid of the project because there is no need for our services,” she said.
"We don't want to be volunteers, we want to be permanent because we don't have jobs," said another representative.
In response to the high unemployment rates and the implementation of a Basic Income Grant, Ramaphosa called on the private sector to ramp up job creation to support the government in its endeavor to support citizens, saying “we all know that [the] government does not create jobs, businesses create jobs.”
The temporary Social Relief of Distress Grant will remain in place for another year, until March 2023, during which time consultations between the government and affected citizens and communities on the ground will discuss how to replace the vital source of income.
Ramaphosa said in his address: “We have been in deep consultations with a number of community based organizations who have articulated very clearly to us the dire needs in our communities but have also appreciated the challenged fiscal position we are facing, and this is something that I am sure they will be able to appreciate… we will continue conversations with them going forward.”