South Africa: Why You Should Not Miss SONA

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the annual State of the National Address, his second since the recall of former President Jacob Zuma in February last year.

The State of the Nation Address (SONA) should excite everybody, especially those who pay taxes and those who exercise their democratic right to vote. They should be interested in knowing what government's plan of action for the year ahead is.

The Acting Director-General of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), Phumla Williams, told PSM why the SONA is important and why everybody should care about it.

According to Williams, the SONA is of crucial importance to all South Africans. She defines it as a statement that is presented by the President of the nation which, in the main, shares with citizens government's service delivery plans.

"It reflects what government did in the past year and also highlights what the focus areas of the current administration will be," she explained.

"The programmes that are mentioned in the SONA get to be actualised when the Minister of Finance presents the programme in Rands and cents," she said.

Williams said that reports must be presented by executives in Parliament each quarter to monitor the progress made in delivering on the plans and promises contained in the SONA.

Most of these executives were elected by the citizens and progress reports allow the voting public to hold executives accountable.

She said this particular SONA is important because it is the last State of the Nation Address before the 2019 national elections.

"One would expect South Africans to want to hear what the President has to say on the country's achievements; on whether or not the commitments made in 2014 - when the current administration took office - have been upheld. This is essentially the last programme of the current administration," she said.

Participate in SONA

Williams referred to South Africa as a constitutional democracy that requires citizens to take an active interest in what the executives are doing because they were elected on the basis of the manifesto of their respective political parties. Therefore, she said, the announcement of the programme for the year should interest everybody, especially those who voted.

She encouraged every citizen to participate in the SONA.

"As GCIS, we set up big screens in different venues across the country and everyone is invited to view the SONA. We do this to ensure that our citizens have appreciation of what government is doing and to encourage dialogue immediately after the President's address. We make sure that communicators who are working at those venues can explain to the viewers what was said and highlight some of the programmes. This allows citizens in rural areas and those without the luxury of television to have an opportunity to listen to the President speak about issues that affect them directly," she explained.

There is a lot of activity on social media around SONA, which Williams said is a healthy conversation which begins to attract more people to engage on issues that affect them.

"Over the years, government has ensured that the President gets to speak to the people on radio soon after the SONA, as part of the post-SONA programmes to further unpack what he said in his speech. This is because sometimes the size and time of the delivery of the speech does not allow the President to unpack plans adequately, so when he speaks on radio and during interviews, he is able to explain further," she said.

"Some of the members of his executive also continue to speak about some of the things that their respective ministries will be doing to actualise the programmes announced during SONA," she added.

The SONA used to take place during the day but it is now delivered in the prime of the evening because research showed that not many people were at home to watch the SONA during the day and therefore missed the opportunity to take a constructive interest in how the country is managed.

"Since it has been moved to the evening, we have found that it affords people an opportunity to view and listen to what the President has to say. I think this is one of the most striking interventions that we have made over the years; we have succeeded in getting more South Africans to view what happens in Parliament on this day," she explained.

What goes into preparing for SONA

Williams said the planning of the SONA starts with reflecting on the things that government has managed to deliver, based on what was announced in the previous SONA and through the resources that were allocated during the budget speech.

From there, government is able to identify areas still needing attention and a programme of action to address any shortfalls will be tabled in the SONA and will be effective from April when the new financial year begins.

However, Williams clarified that the work of government never stops. She said there is continuous planning and programme implementation to ensure that service delivery improves.

She said that while some of the programmes continue year-on-year, the budget for a particular programme might be new.

Parliament, the Presidency and the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, known as NATJOINTS, have been in consultation to ensure that the SONA focuses the nation's attention on both the symbolism and ceremonial content of South Africa's democracy, and on renewal and growth at a time when South Africans wish to see and experience inclusive and sustainable progress that creates jobs and sustains communities.

The ceremonial content of the day will again highlight the mutual regard and partnership among the three arms of the state, in line with the constitutional vision.

The SONA is an opportunity for the President to take stock of challenges faced by the nation but also of progress made.

The address embraces all South Africans and all sectors of society and reflects the lived experience of all citizens, regardless of political persuasion. It focuses the minds and energies of all South Africans on the values that bind them together and on the actions they need to take to build and sustain a shared future.

Williams reminded South Africans that there will be another SONA after the elections this year.

"We should make a call again to all South Africans to have an interest in the second SONA too," she said, explaining that the political party that wins the elections will be spelling out its direction and plans for the country.

Government belongs to the people of South Africa, and that is why Williams believes it is important for citizens to take an interest in what the President is going to say.

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