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South Africa’s state of the nation address: 2016 to 2019 in review

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  • We re-examined eight claims from four state of the nation addresses. Sona 2016 and 2017 were by president Jacob Zuma, and Sona 2018 and 2019 by president Cyril Ramaphosa.

  • Zuma’s claims about training for water conservation, and the number of men and women in senior management positions, were correct. Claims on load shedding and housing delivery were incorrect. 

  • Ramaphosa’s claims about higher education enrolment and social grants were correct. A claim about early childhood education was incorrect, and another on safe toilets in schools unproven.

On 13 February 2020, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa will deliver his fourth state of the nation address. The theme for this year’s speech is “Following up on our commitments: making your future work better.” The president is expected to update South Africans on the government's progress and outline plans for the next financial year.

Africa Check has been fact-checking state of the nation addresses for over six years. If Ramaphosa’s track record is anything to go by, we can expect mainly accurate statements on Thursday evening. (He didn’t get much factually incorrect in his 2019 address.) 

Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, had a harder time staying on the right side of the facts. When he was president of South Africa from 2009 to 2018, he was no stranger to our “incorrect” verdict.

In this report we review key claims made in the last four state of the nation addresses and give updates on each, according to the most recent statistics. 

‘Let us work together to turn the situation around. It can be done.’ – Jacob Zuma, Sona 2016

In February 2016 Zuma delivered his ninth state of the nation address. Africa Check looked at seven claims made on the night. One was correct, four mostly correct, and two were incorrect. 


“To curb water wastage, the Department of Water and Sanitation has begun its programme of training 15,000 young people as artisans.”



The department of water and sanitation launched their War on Leaks project in August 2015. Its initial aim was to train 15,000 artisans, water agents and plumbers from 2015/16 to 2017/18. They would fix leaking taps and pipes in their communities, helping promote water conservation. Water agents were tasked with educating the public on how to use water wisely and manage water resources.

Zuma was correct when he made this statement in 2016. As of 25 January 2016, 2,897 people were being trained, former department spokesperson Mlimandlela Ndamase told Africa Check. They included 1,573 artisans, 243 plumbers and 1,081 water agents. 

But how have things progressed since then?

Phase 1 of the project was meant to be completed in the 2015/16 financial year, after 3,000 artisans, plumbers and water agents were trained. Figures from November 2019 show that 1,726 candidates completed their training.

Another 5,000 were meant to be trained in 2016/17, when phase 2 started. But the available data shows that only 3,854 people were trained. 

Phase 3 was “put on hold” due to the department’s “funding challenges”. A commitment to more funding was reportedly made in January 2020. 

“As you correctly say, the programme was implemented,” Prof Mike Muller, former director general of water affairs, told Africa Check. 

“However, I am not aware of any claims that it has been successful – in fact quite the opposite. It has been recognised by government that the programme has failed to meet its goals.”  


“There has been no load shedding since August last year.”



Zuma was incorrect when he made this statement in February 2016. According to a media statement by power utility Eskom, there was load shedding on 14 September 2015. 

South Africa is again experiencing these rotational power outages as Eskom’s shortage of capacity continues. The utility says there’s a possibility load shedding will remain for the next 18 months.

‘Let us unite in driving radical economic transformation for the good of our country.’ – Jacob Zuma, Sona 2017

In 2017, amid unprecedented security measures, Zuma delivered his 10th state of the nation address. It was his last as president of South Africa. Africa Check looked at 20 claims in the speech. Only 12 were correct, with the rest a mixture of mostly correct, misleading, unproven, understated and incorrect. 


“At the level of gender, at senior management level males remain dominant at 67.6% and females at 32.4%.”



The commission for employment equity’s 2015/16 annual report showed that 67.6% of employees at senior management were men and 32.4% were women.

Three years later, the situation remains much the same. The commission’s 2018/19 annual report showed that 65.5% of employees at senior management were men and 34.5% were women.  


“Government is actively involved in the property sector, having provided more than 4 million houses since 1994.”



Data from the department of human settlements shows Zuma was incorrect when he made this statement. 

A total of 3,030,824 housing units were delivered from 1994/1995 to 2015/16 – around a million less than Zuma claimed.

It is possible that Zuma was referring to the delivery of both houses and serviced sites. But a serviced site is not a house. It is a piece of land supplied with water, electricity and sanitation, on which a recipient can build their own house. 

When serviced sites were added to Zuma’s figure, the number of “housing opportunities” rose to 4,060,795

How many more houses has the government provided since then? A total of 90,692 houses were built in the 2016/17 financial year, 86,048 in 2017/18 and 77,584 in 2018/19. 

This brings the total number of houses provided by the government to 3,285,148. The total number of housing opportunities stands at 4.7 million

But there are concerns about the accuracy of housing statistics. Experts caution that the figures have not been independently verified, so they should be seen as “indicative rather than entirely conclusive”.

‘Now is the time for all of us to work together.’ – Cyril Ramaphosa, Sona 2018

South Africa's 2018 state of the nation address was postponed for more than a week as the presidency changed hands from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa. 

Ramaphosa’s maiden address touched on education, employment and poverty, among other issues. Of the 12 claims Africa Check looked at, 10 were correct and two incorrect.


“There are currently almost one million students who are enrolled in higher education, up from 500,000 in 1994.”



In 1994, there were 525,000 students enrolled in South Africa’s higher education institutions. These included historically black universities and technikons, historically white universities and technikons, and distance-learning institutions.

Audited data shows that by 2015, enrolment had grown to 985,212 students at 26 public higher education institutions. Ramaphosa’s claim was therefore correct. 

Since then the figure has grown to more than a million. In 2017, 1,036,984 students were enrolled in 26 public higher education institutions.


“Today we have nearly 1 million children who are participating in early childhood development facilities.”



Africa Check previously rated this claim as “correct” based on information from the department of basic education. But research suggests that Ramaphosa’s figure of “nearly 1 million children” is a significant underestimate. 

Martin Gustafsson, an economics researcher at the University of Stellenbosch, said there were “widespread misperceptions around how many children in South Africa attend some form of ECD institution”. He has researched and written extensively on the economics of education and pre-school participation.

Gustafsson used data from Statistics South Africa’s 2016 mid-year population estimates and 2016 Community Survey to estimate the number of children in any type of pre-school in 2016.

His calculations put the figure at 2,409,953 children. But he did add that this could be an over or underestimation. Gustafsson was not aware of any updated figures.

But if early childhood development participation is higher than what is believed, what are the implications? “We have to worry less about expanding access and more about improving the quality of what already exists,” Gustafsson said. 

‘The task before us is formidable.’ – Cyril Ramaphosa, Sona 2019

Ramaphosa delivered his second state of the nation address in parliament on 7 February 2019. It was also the fifth and final address of the previous administration before the national election in May 2019.

Of the 12 claims Africa Check fact-checked, eight were correct and the rest a mixture of mostly correct, unproven and understated. 


“Every month 17.5 million social grants are provided to South Africans.”



The South African Social Security Agency administers social grants. Its most recent data on grants at the time was from December 2018, when 17,731,402 social grants were paid. The average for the 2017/18 financial year ending in March 2018 was 17,509,555 grants. Ramaphosa’s claim was therefore correct. 

The most recent data from the 2018/19 financial year shows that the number of social grants provided by the government increased to 17,811,745.


“Since we launched the [Safe] initiative, 699 schools have been provided with safe and appropriate sanitation facilities and projects and a further 1,150 schools are either in planning, design or construction stages.”



The Sanitation Appropriate for Education – Safe – initiative, launched in August 2018, is a government programme that aims to replace all pit latrines and other unacceptable toilet facilities at public schools.

At the time the department of basic education told Africa Check that the president’s figures were from December 2018. Spokesperson Troy Martens said upgrades had been completed at another 88 schools, bringing the total to 787 in 2019.

But it was difficult to independently verify the department’s numbers. The claim was rated as unproven.  

In October 2019, the department gave an update on the progress so far. Records from a committee meeting note that when the Safe initiative was launched and a desktop audit conducted, 3,898 schools were identified as needing attention.

For the 2019/20 financial year, there are 1,007 projects: 880 in the planning stage and 127 under construction. The number of completed projects stands at 188. 

This would bring the total number of completed projects to 975. However, as with the initial claim, it is difficult to verify the figure.

A new approach to fact-checking Sona

Africa Check is taking a different approach to the state of the nation address this year. Rather than fact-checking all the claims made on the night, we’ll conduct a deeper analysis of any claims president Ramaphosa gets wrong. We’re not trying to catch him out - we’re interested in why the facts were misunderstood and the implications of getting them wrong. Stay tuned! 

Additional research by Taryn Willows 

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