President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address contained all the usual announcements of new government initiatives, but was marked for what he admitted about the country’s huge challenges. This comes out clearly in a look at how this tough SONA was reported on in the media.

The name “Ramaphosa” was mentioned 80 times in my collection of each morning’s top online news articles from News24, IOL and TimesLive over the month of February. Some of the words most strongly associated with Ramaphosa (strong collocations, in linguist-speak) in this news coverage are verbs about speaking and hearing. What is most interesting is how these were used to pass little judgements on Ramaphosa for what he said, and what he did not say.

Two words highlighted what people expected Ramaphosa to say before SONA: “announce” and “hear”. The DA’s John Steenhuisen “did not expect to hear anything new from Ramaphosa”. The ACDP MP Steve Swart “expected Ramaphosa to announce and give a report on the fight against gender-based violence, and the high levels of crime and corruption”. Business Unity South Africa (Busa) said they wanted to hear Ramaphosa say “that the state has a clear strategy to address the crisis at state-owned enterprises”.

In particular, Busa had wanted Ramaphosa to announce one deal that ended up not being ready for SONA: a rescue plan for Eskom which they brokered together with Cosatu, In this plan, state pension money would be used to bail out Eskom. The rescue plan was left out of the address to allow more time for consultation; unions have been divided over it.

So what was announced at SONA? The word “announced” was used to describe some of Ramaphosa’s plans for land reform: he said that “his government would implement key recommendations of the presidential advisory panel on land reform and agriculture to accelerate land redistribution, expand agricultural production and transform the industry”.

He also kicked the ball down the field on two issues, announcing that Tito Mboweni would provide more details about the creation of a state bank and a sovereign wealth fund in his budget speech. “Provide” is another word that showed a close association with “Ramaphosa” in February’s news coverage.

Two words strongly correlated with Ramaphosa’s name in the news were “youth” and “employment”, referring to the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention that he unveiled in SONA. It remains to be seen what impact this plan will have in the harsh economic conditions South Africa faces at the moment.

But more interesting than these announcements were Ramaphosa’s ‘admissions’. Top news reports said that Ramaphosa “admitted that the country is facing serious challenges”, and “admitted that government will not be able to fix South Africa’s economic woes on its own”.

The media also mentioned another Ramaphosa admission, this time made outside of Parliament by the president’s son, Andile, who in March 2019 “had admitted to being paid R2m by Bosasa in accumulated monthly ‘retainer’ fees for advisory work on a ‘pipeline’ of more than 20 projects in East Africa”. Attention was cast onto this again due to Bosasa’s insolvency inquiry, currently taking place. It is uncertain whether the younger Ramaphosa will be subpoenaed to appear at the inquiry. The president will be buoyed by the recent High Court judgement striking down the Public Protector’s report on the Bosasa case, although the DA and EFF are saying that they won’t let the issue slip away quietly.

“Admit” is a word that slices both ways. It implies that what is being admitted is embarrassing or reflects badly on the speaker. However, admitting to embarrassing information can also be seen as a sign of honesty. Ramaphosa’s opponents will have read his admissions as signs of cracks in his ‘New Dawn’, while those who support him will have praised him for his realism. This is only one example of a word that can be interpreted in different ways by people with different political leanings.

Perhaps Ramaphosa’s greatest test over the next year will be in how he handles the weaknesses and challenges he has ‘admitted’ to. But the challenge is not his only: South African society needs to decide how we will respond to our economic problems and entrenched social divisions. What will we admit to, and what will we do to help fix the perilous state of our nation?


Ian Siebörger

Ian Siebörger

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in Linguistics at Rhodes University, specializing in discourse analysis, particularly the analysis of media and political discourses. His PhD, completed in 2018, is...

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