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Fact-checked: South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s sixth state of the nation address

Weighed down by crushing public expectation, Ramaphosa took to the dais at Cape Town’s city hall to deliver the 2022 state of the nation address. Did he get all his facts right?

  • Ramaphosa didn’t mince words – he was correct that the past two years of the Covid pandemic have seen 2 million more South Africans unemployed and the highest rates of unemployment.

  • In more positive news, the president was also right about the number of Covid vaccines given and understated vaccine coverage across the country.

  • A surprising claim of the night – commending Lesotho for their cannabis production and encouraging South Africa to follow suit – was also on the money.

South Africa’s 2022 state of the nation address (Sona) was different, with president Cyril Ramaphosa forced to deliver it from the Cape Town city hall after a fire gutted the national assembly.

Ramaphosa said the fire was symbolic of the devastation caused by Covid-19, rising unemployment, deepening poverty and riots in the country in July 2021.

But a fire can also lead to renewal, as Ramaphosa spoke of rebuilding the country's democracy, reforming the economy and targeting corruption.

In his speech the president made a number of claims about unemployment, vaccination, electricity, cannabis and social grants.

We checked if he was right. (Note: We will be adding more claims to this report as we complete assessing them.)

Claim

“Over the past two years [the Covid-19 pandemic] has … put 2 million people out of work.”

Verdict

Correct

Ramaphosa made a similar claim on 8 January 2022, when he gave a speech to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the founding of the ruling African National Congress. In the speech he put the number of job losses at “around 1.5 million”, which we rated incorrect because it was based on unemployment data that wasn’t the most recent.

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the country's national data agency, collects data on unemployment which it publishes in its quarterly labour force survey (QLFS).

The agency’s latest release estimated that there were 14,282,000 people employed during July to September 2021. During January to March 2020, when the pandemic began, there were an estimated 16,383,000 people employed. 

This is 2,101,000 fewer people employed. Ramaphosa is (now) correct. – Keegan Leech

Claim

“So far we have as a nation administered some 30 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines …”

Verdict

Correct

South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination programme includes the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines as of February 2022. 

Statistics on the vaccination rollout include data recorded on the Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) but exclude vaccination data captured on paper. The EVDS is an online portal where people can register for vaccines. 

According to the government’s Covid-19 news portal, totals will be adjusted as paper-based records are captured. 

At time of publication, approximately 30.7 million doses had been administered in total. Of these doses, 7.54 million were Johnson & Johnson and 23.16 million were Pfizer. 

Ramaphosa’s claim is correct. – Naledi Mashishi

Claim

“Nearly 42% of all adults and 60% of everyone over 50 years of age is fully vaccinated. And this is a real achievement that many countries on our continent have not been able to reach.”

Verdict

Understated

According to EVDS records on 10 February, 47.08% of the adult population has been vaccinated. The age group with the highest vaccination rate is those above 60 in which 69.33% of men and 66.26% of women are vaccinated. 

In the 50-59 years cohort, 63.54% of men and 63.42% of women are vaccinated. Ramaphosa therefore understated the country’s current vaccination numbers. 

The president is correct, however, when it comes to South Africa’s vaccination coverage compared to the rest of the continent. 

According to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 28.36% of South Africa’s total population is fully vaccinated. 

This places South Africa behind other countries on the continent such as Seychelles (78.60%), Morocco (62.65%), Rwanda (55.72%), Botswana (46.76%) and Cape Verde (44.67%). 

But South Africa is still ahead of most African countries. In total, only 11.69% of Africans on the continent have been vaccinated. And countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Somalia have yet to vaccinate more than 10% of their total population. 

Eritrea is the only country on the continent that has not yet started a Covid-19 vaccination program. – Naledi Mashishi

Claim

“Last year our unemployment rate reached its highest recorded level.”

Verdict

Correct

Statistics South Africa’s quarterly labour force survey (QLFS) only began in 2008. Dr Thabi Leoka, an economist and chief executive of Naha Investments, previously explained to Africa Check that recent unemployment data cannot be accurately compared to data gathered prior to 2008. 

“When we say the highest recorded, we mean since 2008,” Leoka said.

The most recent QLFS indicates that the unemployment rate of 34,9% was – by any measure – higher in the period July to September 2021 than it has been since the survey began. 

Ramaphosa is correct. – Keegan Leech

Claim

“[A]round 80% of all the people who are employed in South Africa are employed in the private sector.”

Verdict

Correct

The UN’s International Labour Organization sets international standards for work. It defines the private sector as “all non-public entities including enterprises, foundations, non-governmental organisations and households”. 

Stats SA’s quarterly employment statistics break down the number of jobs in each sector of the economy. The government sector employs people in national, provincial and local government, extra-budgetary institutions, as well as universities and technikons. 

According to Stats SA, extra-budgetary institutions do not operate through normal parliamentary budgetary processes but play an important role in delivering national government services. Examples include the South African Revenue Service, the Road Accident Fund and the Unemployment Insurance Fund

Stats SA’s latest data indicates that, in September 2021, 9.62 million people in South Africa were employed. And 2,197,684 of them had jobs in the public sector.

This means the remaining 77.2% of workers were employed in the private sector. Ramaphosa’s claim is correct.

Claim

“Our country has a shortfall of around 4,000 megawatts of electricity.”

Verdict

Understated

“Due to our ageing power stations, poor maintenance, policy missteps and the ruinous effects of state capture, our country has a shortfall of around 4,000 megawatts of electricity,” Ramaphosa said

In his 2021 state of the nation speech Ramaphosa said electricity public utility Eskom had estimated an electricity supply shortfall of “between 4,000 and 6,000 megawatts over the next five years”.

Africa Check spoke to Anton Eberhard, director of the Power Futures Lab at the University of Cape Town’s business school, who said it was difficult to put a precise number to the shortfall in South Africa.

“It depends in part on the availability of Eskom power stations and what reserve margin is considered prudent,” he said.

Eberhard said that Eskom had “very little spare available generation capacity” and that its plant performance was unpredictable. 

“Most assessments are that we need an additional 4,000 to 6,000 megawatts of available capacity for a secure system.”

Chris Yelland, an energy analyst at consultancy firm EE Business Intelligence, said the president’s claim was understated. He thought the shortfall was closer to 6,000 megawatts. 

Eberhard said “the shortfall will increase as old coal power stations, which have reached their end of lives, are decommissioned”.

Experts advised that the shortfall amount, although difficult to pinpoint, was higher than Ramaphosa said. We rate this claim as understated. – Taryn Khourie

Claim

“Our immediate neighbour Lesotho has gone ahead in the industrialisation of cannabis in leaps and bounds.”

Verdict

Correct

Cannabis is a plant containing a host of chemicals which have various physical and psychological effects when consumed. The use of the plant, and many of its derivatives, has historically been widely prohibited, though in the 21st century its legal status has begun to change in many countries. 

The plant has been used ceremonially and medicinally in Lesotho, South Africa’s landlocked neighbour, for centuries. A number of social, environmental, economic and political forces have made cannabis cultivation a popular income source in the country. `

In 2008, Lesotho introduced a drugs of abuse act that was largely consistent with previous prohibitionist policies, except for permitting the cultivation of medical cannabis. But the regulations to go along with this reportedly did not come into place until interest from international companies in the late 2010s. 

As of 2019, various licences had been granted to international companies for a starting period of 10 years. Even so, mystery still surrounds cannabis licensing in Lesotho. It has been reported that there was even uncertainty in the government about how many licences had been granted. 

In early 2021, a Lesotho-based firm became the first in Africa licensed to export medical cannabis to the European Union. Later that year, Highland Investments, an international licensed cannabis cultivator, announced a shipment of some 8.5 tonnes of cannabis to Europe. It was touted as one of the largest legal shipments of medical cannabis to date. 

Though cultivation licences were initially given out without a fee, growers now have to pay large sums to gain entry into the medical market. They also bear the high cost of specialised equipment needed to adhere to international growing standards. 

This is generally unaffordable to small-scale growers and often has the effect of keeping them in the black market while larger international companies operate formally. – Kirsten Cosser

Claim

“The presidential employment stimulus programme includes over half a million young people appointed as education assistants.”

Verdict

Exaggerated

According to the presidency, the aim of the presidential employment stimulus (PES) programme is to “create jobs and strengthen livelihoods, supporting meaningful work while the labour market recovers” from the coronavirus pandemic. 

A key component of the programme is the basic education employment intervention (BEEI), run by the department of basic education. 

The BEEI aims to make people aged 18 to 35 years more employable by providing temporary employment as education and general assistants in schools.

380,482 education assistants employed

According to the employment stimulus dashboard, there is a difference between education and general assistants. The education assistants, which requires a matric and prioritises graduates, provide support to teachers in the classroom. General assistants help with tasks such as “school maintenance, security, food gardens and after-school care”. 

In phase 1 of the programme, 196,949 education assistants and 122,533 general assistants were hired. In phase 2, 183,533 education assistants and 93,094 general assistants were hired. 

This means 380,482 education assistants and 215,627 general assistants have been hired so far. Combined this adds up to 596,109 assistants. They are paid at the national minimum wage

The dashboard notes that the “data is subject to ongoing verification and audit. The numbers reported may change based on final verification and audit outcomes”. - Kirsten Cosser

Claim

“Invariably, the majority of [young people] always find permanent employment once they are brought in through this program.”

Verdict

Unproven

Ramaphosa was reported to have made a similar claim in October 2021. 

[Ramaphosa] noted that many of the school assistants in Phase 1 ‘found their way into employment’ given the experience, training and references gained in the programme,” News24 reported at the time .  

However, we could not find any studies on the impact of the programme in terms of subsequent permanent employment. Neither the presidency nor the department of basic education responded to our request for information on this claim. It is not clear whether the permanent employment status of previously appointed assistants is being systematically tracked. 

Plans to track the programme’s impact more generally seem to be underway. A request for proposals to conduct an impact assessment was made by the department of basic education in 2021. 

The assessment would evaluate the impact of the BEEI programme on reading, classroom management and learner attendance. - Kirsten Cosser

Claim

“The social relief of distress grant has provided support to more than 10 million unemployed people…”

Verdict

Correct

The social relief of distress (SRD) grant was introduced in May 2020 as temporary relief for low and no income households who experienced financial hardship because of the lockdown measures to curb the spread of Covid-19

It has now been expanded to include South Africans who are in such “dire material need that they are unable to meet their families’ most basic needs”. This can include being a victim of a crisis or disaster, being unable to work and the death or imprisonment of the family breadwinner. 

Applicants must be older than 18, unemployed, not receiving any income and not receiving any social grant. 

It pays R350 a month and has been extended until March 2022. 

Paseka Letsatsi is the spokesperson for the South African Social Security Agency. He told Africa Check that as of 8 February, the agency had received, “a total of 15,187,899 applications for the Covid relief grant, of which 10,451,360 have been approved for payment”. – Naledi Mashishi

Claim

“We have made significant progress in reducing the DNA backlog processing from 210,000 exhibits to some 58,000 at present.”

Verdict

Mostly Correct

DNA is important evidence that links a person to a crime or crime scene with great accuracy. But the DNA gathered at crime scenes has to be processed by experts in labs to produce a DNA profile that can be matched to a suspect.

Africa Check asked Lirandzu Themba, the police ministry’s communications director, about Ramaphosa’s claim. She referred us to police minister Bheki Cele’s speaking notes for the State of the Nation debate. 

“The backlog has decreased from over 200,000 in June last year to under 60,000 in January this year,” the notes read. And on 16 February, Themba told Africa Check that the backlog was “currently reduced to 54,348” cases.

But Cele’s notes also refer to 159,996 “new cases”. This is where things get complicated.

Currently 214,344 unprocessed cases

In August 2021, South Africa’s Democratic Alliance opposition party issued a press release claiming that the police’s DNA backlog had in fact grown to more than 300,000 cases. 

Andrew Whitfield, the party’s shadow minister of police, told Africa Check there were – in a sense – two sets of case backlogs. By 11 May 2021, the South African Police Services had tracked both a “ring-fenced” backlog of unprocessed cases and several “new cases”.

Whitfield sent us a presentation delivered to the parliamentary portfolio committee on police in August 2021. It indicates that there were 210,864 backlogged cases on 11 May 2021. This was reduced to 166,327 cases by 19 August 2021. The police “ring-fence” these cases, which means that they are tracked separately to monitor progress in reducing the backlog. 

Whitfield described Ramaphosa’s statement as “partially correct”. The backlog of 210,864 cases ring-fenced in May 2021 was reportedly reduced to “under 60,000” by January 2022. 

But this doesn’t mean there were under 60,000 unprocessed cases. Adding the 54,348 “ring-fenced” and 159,996 “new” cases together makes 214,344 unprocessed cases. 

Themba confirmed that this was the current total. She added that these cases were “prioritised according to court dates” in consultation with detectives and the National Prosecuting Authority.

Further Reading

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