What of SONA, Mr President?

President Mokgweetsi Masisi
President Mokgweetsi Masisi

The outcome of the 2019 General Elections have renewed the mandate of the ruling party and given President Mokgweetsi Masisi a brand-new social contract.

The Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) performance is a clear vote of confidence in Masisi’s leadership. Now to the task of governing, the President must and will have to use the State of the Nation Address (SONA) coupled with his newly endorsed cabinet to set the tone for his mandate, define his priorities in line with the electoral promises he made and drive his transformation agenda.

The SONA will force Masisi to start carving out his own legacy and project authority to the challenges the country faces. Looking at the pledges Masisi and the BDP made to the electorate, it would be strategic to go for the low hanging fruit and line up initiatives that can bear fruit at least in the first 100 days in office.

The President will have to deliver a remarkable speech to convince the country that he and his party deserve to stay on.

This is despite the economy not doing so well in a manner that translates to transformation of people’s lives. Unemployment remains grossly high, especially amongst the youth, extreme poverty persists and an erosion of public trust in institutions as a result of corruption continues to haunt the country.

Given all these realities about the true state of the nation, the President will have to put political performance aside and resist the urge to invoke too much unqualified excitement.

Neither Masisi nor his speechwriter should introduce anything new during his SONA. The focus should instead be on giving timeframes on the implementation of the BDP’s election manifesto.

Chief amongst the many priorities is likely to be an address on the country’s ailing economy and a plan to create jobs. The BDP promised to create an inclusive economy.

This multilayered issue must deal with the land question, internationally competitive pay for workers, decent jobs, participation of citizens in key strategic sectors of the economy, i.e. tourism, retail, financial and banking services and mining.

The citizen economic empowerment law that has been frequently thrown about must also be a top priority to guarantee Batswana protection and a seat at the table in playing a role in their own economy.

One of the single biggest threats to our democratic foundations is deep levels of inequality. Inequality cannot be fixed with little titbits of investment.

Job creation and growing the economy are necessary conditions for breaking the back of the inequality challenge. But they are not sufficient. The country needs sharper and more direct focus on exclusion and inequality. This speech must do so.

It will also be interesting to position the President’s speech in contrast to the recently released Budget strategy paper, which painted a gloomy picture of the fiscus and even went as far as proposing a hiring freeze.

How will the President and his executive tackle this? Will they reaffirm the strategy paper or manoeuvre around it to seek a more moderate compromise? Since Masisi has always been strong on attracting foreign investment, this will likely be the doorway to prop up the gloomy picture from the treasury.

In the coming year, we are likely to see more of the President’s investment drives, and perhaps the SONA will shed more light on targets, industries and any other details on legislation for maximising on impact investments.

Gearing up for the fourth industrial revolution and a knowledge-based economy were also key electoral promises. In order to demonstrate that these were not just buzzwords, the SONA must come armed with a strategic direction and an outright commitment to timelines and targets.

It is good that the President has repetitively expressed his dream and vision of a Botswana produced electric car.

Perhaps an R&D strategy, backed up by commitment to improve key ICT infrastructure and policy frameworks for internet connectivity will suffice. 

The education crises must also be dealt with accordingly. The BDP promised an improved education and training system through the Education and Training Sector Strategic Plan (ETSSP).

Many other pledges relating to indigenous languages, early childhood, tertiary and vocational training institutions were made and tied to the overarching fourth industrial revolution and knowledge economy ‘agenda’.

The country has an immense appetite for all these transformational ideas, and these will be low hanging fruit to go for. But it will take a lot to move towards policy planning and implementation and that’s what the SONA must focus on.

Many of these initiatives already have the right policy environment and will only require political will followed by expert-led execution.

President Masisi has also had a relatively good relationship with the media. The litmus test for this dalliance will be whether government and legislators move promptly to pass and implement the freedom of information bill into law to guarantee transparency and accountability.

This will be one of the defining moments for the next decade or so and is set to change the culture of accountability and media-government relations.

The other, equally important matter is that of the constitutional review. Masisi’s strong opinion on the overdue comprehensive review of the constitution is a highly anticipated matter.

The country has a huge appetite for it and if he does move as quickly as possible to guarantee a referendum in the immediate term, his approval ratings will likely shoot up.

A constitutional review with timely issues to decide will force the country to converse and decide on changes that should’ve been made decades ago if not longer. Direct election of the President certainly tops the list.

Naturally some pledges will take the backseat and probably disappear into thin air. The independence of key institutions, a comprehensive remedy of the land issue, climate change legislation will all likely take a while to see the light of day.

The banal truth is that politics always finds its way into governance. A ‘good’ SONA is a mix of statecraft and strategic intent, sometimes coupled with a tedious checklist of ‘action plans’. I presume the speech will be politically effective and carefully calculated, and Batswana must remain rationally optimistic.

Too many SONAs have been long and heavy on vision but low on details, timelines and tangible deliverables.

Equally, we mustn’t be comfortable holding on to the expectation that the details will come later, or that we need hope more than we need pragmatism in a time of national angst.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.

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