Observers noted the joyful spirit and a sense of solidarity among MPs and guests at parliament which was in stark contrast to the military siege atmosphere during "SONA" events in recent years. Social media were abuzz with statements of hope, support, pride and relief - Twitter saw over 150 000 Tweets on #SONA2018 in a short space of time.
In his address, during which the President spoke fluently in 6 of the official languages of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa referred to Nelson Mandela repeatedly - this year also marks his 100th Birthday - and vowed to work towards building the "democratic, just and equitable society" Madiba dreamt of. The president evoked the vision of a people united by their love for their country, and by their commitment to build a better future for all:
"As we rid our minds of all negativity, we should reaffirm our belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. For though we are a diverse people, we are one nation. There are 57 million of us, each with different histories, languages, cultures, experiences, views and interests. Yet we are bound together by a common destiny ... We are at a moment in the history of our nation when the people, through their determination, have started to turn the country around".
The wide-ranging speech outlined a program for a competent, leaner, developmental state committed to eradicate corruption, to focus on nation building, growing the economy in inclusive, sustainable ways and to seize this moment of change, hope and renewal the country has been yearning for during the past "era of discord, disunity and disillusionment".
The address also reflected a strong focus on cross sector collaboration. Among the initiatives to be implemented this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to a Youth Employment Service Initiative, a Job Summit, an Investor Conference, a small business and innovation fund targeted at start-ups, a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission, which will include the private sector and civil society and a Presidential Economic Advisory Council. He also shared plans for a Youth Crime Prevention Strategy, a Community Policing Strategy and a Social Sector Summit which "should seek to improve the interface between the state and civil society and address the challenges that NGOs and CBOs face".
South Africans are eager to see the implementation of a new ethos of government, and of well designed, pragmatic, promising plans. Critics remark that actions will speak louder than words. South Africa has 27 % official unemployment, 55 % of the population live in poverty, the economy is growing at less than 1 %, the public basic education system is chronically dysfunctional and political uncertainty has for a long time now deterred investors. The revenue shortfall and government debt have grown significantly, mismanaged state-owned enterprises need huge bailouts from the state, and international rating agencies have downgraded the country to junk status.
The reactions from opposition MPs to some parts of the speech were mixed. When the President spoke about expropriation without compensation to happen under certain conditions, MPs from the EFF applauded as well, while DA MPs showed concern.
The EFF also sang songs in parliament on the night of the State of the Nation Address, calling for arrests of corrupt ministers. A significant, much anticipated cabinet reshuffle by the new President is widely expected to be on the cards; ministers tainted by their participation in “State Capture” and other non-performing members of the cabinet shall be replaced by committed and competent new women and men.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has sent clear signals that he is serious about tackling corruption; prosecuting authorities have finally begun to lay charges against those implicated, and ministers may soon be amongst them. The nation is waiting to hear if and when the charges against former President Jacob Zuma will be reinstated as well – many believe that, now, it is just a matter of time.
Cyril Ramaphosa is also portraying the image of a president who is close to his people: he is going on morning walks, with the location being published in advance, such that citizens can join him for this exercise very early in the morning – and he makes it a point to do so not only in affluent suburbs, but in poorer, relatively neglected areas as well.
Cautious observers of course note the magnitude of the tasks ahead - and the transformation of President Ramaphosa's own party, the governing ANC, and its leadership, may be among the most challenging projects. In his speech, Cyril Ramaphosa clearly committed himself to being a president for all South Africans. He did not mention the ANC as such once in his State of the Nation Address.
In concluding his speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa quoted the lyrics of a song by a legendary South African musician who had passed away in January this year, Hugh Masekela:
"In his song, ‘Thuma Mina’, he anticipated a day of renewal, of new beginnings:
I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around
When they triumph over poverty
I wanna be there when the people win the battle against AIDS
I wanna lend a hand
I wanna be there for the alcoholic
I wanna be there for the drug addict
I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse
I wanna lend a hand Send me.”
These lines which the President recited particularly touched people's hearts - many posted statements on social media saying they want to get more involved and work towards a truly new South Africa. The State of the Nation Address drew an enthusiastic and often emotional response from many parliamentarians and South African citizens alike.
General Bantu Holomisa, the leader of the opposition party United Democratic Movement and fierce critic of former president Jacob Zuma, tweeted: "President CR has raised hopes of Many in this country. The past nine years have been hell for us. Non-partisan approach if applied, can go a long way in rebuilding South Africa."