15 February 2021 | Story Prof Sethulego Matebesi | Photo Sonia Small
Dr Sethulego Matebesi
Prof Sethulego Matebesi is a senior lecturer and Academic Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.


Opinion article by Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Senior Lecturer and Academic Head of the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of The Humanities, University of the Free State. 

In Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem, the opening line poses a simple yet profound question: ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ Hughes then arrives at a provocative conclusion: ‘Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?’

In sharp contrast, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2021 State of the Nation address expectedly began by sharing a story of hope, resilience, and inspiration. In a slight departure from his usual presentation style, powerful rhetorical and inspiring themes were a notable feature of the President’s address. By highlighting South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout programme, boosting the unemployment rate, economic recovery, and fighting corruption as the government’s key priorities, the President wove together the challenges and opportunities we face as a nation.

Pitfalls of the mass vaccination drive

Thus far, the South African government has led a commendable intervention strategy against the coronavirus. While there seems to be a concrete vision of how to implement the mass vaccination drive, the realisation is there is overwhelming evidence of how various challenges have compromised immunisation programmes in the country. Adopting the current Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) strategies to champion the COVID-19 mass vaccination drive will be insufficient in the context of porous borders, overwhelmed primary healthcare workers, and intense and significant epidemiological changes of the virus. The last challenge is not only akin to SA. Therefore, it is imperative that a better understanding of population mobility and more targeted and evidence-informed strategies will be crucial in mounting a sufficient mass vaccination drive.

Unemployment – a mixed bag of fortunes 

Long before COVID-19 ravaged the South African labour market, unemployment has been one of the country’s key challenges. In a country where half of the youth are unemployed, it was expected that SONA 2021 would provide a glimmer hope to subvert the poor socio-economic outcomes of unemployment. But the dream for many unemployed South Africans remains out of reach as short-term initiatives such as the extension of the Special COVID-19 Grant of R350 and the Presidential Employment Stimulus will not be able to cushion the ravages of long-term unemployment many South Africans have to endure. Despite the delays and teething implementation challenges of these employment relief packages, they will again face a breaking point when these interventions end.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly led to an unprecedented number of job losses. This situation will continue due to deindustrialisation, depressing investment and the complacency of South African institutions. For example, the President mentioned several relief measures, including the Public Employment Programme, which created 3.2 million work opportunities. However, there remain serious doubts about planning around youth employment.

The President stated that the government reached 1,000 businesses by International Youth Day in August 2020, is a far cry from the 15,000 start-ups planned to be supported by 2020. Another complicating factor is that institutions like the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), which has to play a leading role in assisting young citizens to become successful entrepreneurs, is highly politicised and embedded in the intra-political battles of the ruling party. The fact that there is still no board for the NYDA is indicative of the challenges of fighting youth unemployment. Effective managerial accountability and control of financial resources will go a long way in assisting agencies such as the NYDA in meeting their mandates.

Economic recovery and corruption

The President’s speech highlighted a myriad of plans to restructure, rebuild and revive the South African economy. Comparatively, the President's fifth SONA had more detail about milestones reached and practical strategies to implement plans. Expectedly, he also lamented the impact of state capture and the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africans are now looking to finance minister, Tito Mboweni’s upcoming national Budget Review for details on how the government will fund the President's priorities. However, attempts to grow an ailing economy are impeded by the continuing energy supply crisis, the lack of scope to utilise digital technologies to shape economic opportunities, and rampant corruption.

The measures against corruption mentioned in the State of the Nation are welcomed. The same cannot be said about the political commitment to deal with the challenge. But what difference will the launch of a National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council make if the government fails to act decisively on the Auditor-General’s reports which highlight an average of R50billion in irregular expenditure annually? Pronouncements by the President about fighting corruption have become a norm. There are pockets of success in this regard. Yet the scourge of corruption and greed in government institutions continues unabatedly.

Global experience has shown that robust, transparent and accountable public institutions can be catalytic in securing and sustaining good governance. Without good governance, our youth will continue to stand on street corners looking for jobs, many will continue to go to bed on empty stomachs, our lights will remain off, and we will continue to be imprisoned in our homes due to the high crime rate in the country. 
Only time will tell what will happen to dreams deferred yet again.

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