What are the President’s Priorities?

As a way of measuring the main issues of concern for South Africa’s sitting president and how they change over time, we analysed 10 State of the Nation Addresses (SONAs), given by two presidents, over the past eight years to tease out the topics they devoted the most time to.

The interactive graphic below shows the 10 topics that got the most airtime, counted as number of words, in each of the past 10 SONAs.

The favourite topics of 2 presidents over 10 speeches

Let’s not talk about education

If the State of the Nation Address sets out the government’s priorities for the coming year, then the education of our schoolchildren is not one of them in 2021.

We understand that the country is in the throes of a pandemic and attention has to be focused on that, but given the disruptions the SARS-CoV-2 virus has caused to schooling, one paragraph of a mere 54 words seemed inadequate.

Last year, more than 80 school days were lost because of lockdowns, according to the Wave Two report by the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey.

In 2021, the start of the school year was delayed by nearly three weeks.

Nine-million children – 75% of the school population – lost out on school feeding schemes when the country went into lockdown in 2020, according to Section 27, a non-profit organisation.

More than 12 000 teachers and 3 000 non-teaching staff have tested positive for the virus, and over 1 000 teachers have died from Covid-19-related illnesses, since March 2020, the Department of Basic Education told members of parliament on 23 February.

Covid-19 related deaths among teachers

The matric class of 2020 had a pass rate of 76%. The class of 2019 and 2018 had pass rates of 81% and 78%, respectively.

While online learning was regarded as the answer to missed school days, “Many learners do not have devices to support learning from home,” says Noncedo Madubedube, the general secretary of non-profit Equal Education.

Then there are still thousands of public schools that don’t even meet the minimum standards for sanitation in schools. A recent DBE school readiness report said 3 335 schools had requested emergency water provision for the year ahead. Water in schools is crucial to ensure the children can meet the hygiene requirements for Covid-19.

This, however, is all the president had to say about education in this year’s SONA:

“Of the many hardships our people had to experience last year, schooling disruption placed a huge burden on learners, teachers and families. Despite this, they persevered. It is our priority for this year to regain lost time and improve educational outcomes, from the early years through to high school and post-school education and training.”

There was nothing about how schools were going to regain lost time or improve outcomes. Which will be next to impossible with the country anticipating the third wave of Covid-19 infections and schools cutting their budgets, said Madubedube.

Advocacy group Section 27 said: “It is deeply concerning that the President failed to provide detail on how the basic education sector will be supported in this time of crisis. The President should have provided an honest depiction of the way education has been negatively impacted during COVID-19 and the failings of the Department of Basic Education to adequately address problems.” See Section 27’s full response here.

Let’s talk about Eskom and our energy problems, again

Every year in his State of the Nation address President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken about Eskom and how it needs to be fixed because of its limiting effect on economic growth.In fact, the beleaguered electricity utility has featured prominently in SONAs since at least 2014. This year it was in the top five topics that got the most airtime again.

It was just over five years ago that then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told the National Council of Provinces that in 18 months to two years we’d all have forgotten Eskom’s challenges.

Unfortunately, it is a problem we continue to have today, as our data on load shedding over the last five years indicates.

On 15 March 2021 Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter told frustrated South Africans to expect another five years of load shedding as Eskom expected a shortfall of 4 000 megawatts.

Gender-based violence rises up the agenda

Gender-based violence made it back into the top-10 topics this year. The issue started to get increased attention after the #TotalShutdown protests in August 2018.

Since then, the government launched the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and the privately funded Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Response Fund.

The National Prosecuting Authority has since 2017 highlighted successful prosecutions of gender-based violence in its annual reports, and Parliament is considering three pieces of legislation that are expected to “make the criminal justice system more effective in combating gender-based violence.”

Over the last 4 SONAs Ramaphosa has used just over 200 words on average to discuss GBV.

Who likes to speak the longest?

Perhaps unsurprisingly Ramaphosa prefers a longer speech, speaking for an extra 12 minutes on average compared to his predecessor. Zuma, on the other hand, tended to spend a lot more time on greetings than Ramaphosa usually does.

Ramaphosa is big on social cohesion and nation building, Zuma not so much

The Fynbos metaphor follows on Ramaphosa’s tendency to draw on historical allusions and metaphors to rally the country to keep moving towards equity, which we have noted as social cohesion and nation building.

Ramaphosa also draws heavily on inspiration from former statesmen like the USA’s Theodore Roosevelt (quoted in 2019), and he has quoted former president Nelson Mandela in the two most recent state of the nation addresses.

When he is not enumerating South Africa’s progress and resilience through his metaphors on nation-building, the president has given us an insight into his love of poetry, literature and music – quoting from poet and American civil rights activist Maya Angelou in his 2021 address, Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in his 2020 address, former journalist Sol Plaatje in 2019 and jazz musician Hugh Masekela in his inaugural 2018 address.

His predecessor Zuma preferred to quote former struggle leaders like ANC leader Oliver Tambo and uMkhonto we Sizwe operative Solomon Mahlangu.

Data Analysis & Writing: Gemma Ritchie & Laura Grant Design & Programming: Sarena Govender & Alastair Otter.
Media Hack Collective has analysed over ten years of state of the nation addresses. If you want to see our earlier visualizations, check them out here and here.

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