State of Whose Nation

Some reflections on diversity, inclusion and the 2018 SONA

By Nene Molefi


As “us” and “them” politics continue to plague our country, I watched the State of the Nation on 16 February with keen interest. Would incoming President Cyril Ramaphosa tackle diversity issues head on? Would his tone be one of inclusion and bridge building? Would transformation and equity feature prominently in his list of priorities for the country?

I was not only pleasantly surprised, I was deeply moved.

I was moved not just by his proposed policies and action areas, but by the ways in which he modeled inclusion. For example, several minutes into his speech, he momentarily switched to Afrikaans. While this could be seen as unnecessary, it was an intentional act of inclusion, his way of extending an olive branch to a group that has often distanced themselves and at times been alienated by the ruling party.

Another subtle but profoundly inclusive symbol – this time of gender equity – was the way he honoured Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu,  a female struggle icon, at the same time as commemorating Madiba.

Ramaphosa’s speech, delivered with heart and passion, was full of direct references to diversity and transformation, and we shouldn’t take this for granted. It reflects the vision of a South Africa that belongs to all its people…

…  where unfair discrimination ceases to limit one’s opportunities:

“We are building a country where a person’s prospects are determined by their own initiative and hard work, and not by the colour of their skin, place of birth, gender, language or income of their parents.”

… where we embrace our similarities and our differences across many dimensions of diversity:

“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.”

… where race and gender inequalities are confronted head-on:

“We know that there is still a lot that divides us. We remain a highly unequal society, in which poverty and prosperity are still defined by race and gender. We have been given the responsibility to build a new nation, to confront the injustices of the past and the inequalities of the present.”

… where we understand socio-economic inequality and fight for the poor:

“We know, however, that if we are to break the cycle of poverty, we need to educate the children of the poor.”

… where we fundamentally transform our workplaces and industries:

“The process of industrialisation must be underpinned by transformation.  … We will improve our capacity to support black professionals, deal decisively with companies that resist transformation, use competition policy to open markets up to new black entrants, and invest in the development of businesses in townships and rural areas. Radical economic transformation requires that we fundamentally improve the position of black women and communities in the economy, ensuring that they are owners, managers, producers and financiers.”

… where we understand generational differences and needs, and empower our youth:

“Young South Africans will be moved to the centre of our economic agenda.”

… where we provide opportunities for people with disabilities:

“We are also working to expand economic opportunities for people with disabilities. Among other things, the Small Enterprise Finance Agency – SEFA – has launched a scheme to develop and fund entrepreneurs with disabilities called the Amavulandlela Funding Scheme.”

… where we reduce wage inequality and address the huge income gap:

“The introduction of a national minimum wage was made possible by the determination of all social partners to reduce wage inequality while maintaining economic growth and employment creation.”

… where we create greater equity in education:

“Starting this year, free higher education and training will be available to first year students from households with a gross combined annual income of up to R350,000.”

… where we support and value language diversity, including South African Sign Language:

“In an historic first, from the beginning of this year, all public schools have begun offering an African language. Also significant is the implementation of the first National Senior Certificate examination on South African Sign Language, which will be offered to deaf learners at the end of 2018.”

… where we understand diverse health needs and continue to fight against discrimination of people with HIV:

“This year, we will take the next critical steps to eliminate HIV from our midst. By scaling up our testing and treating campaign, we will initiate an additional two million people on antiretroviral treatment by December 2020.”

… where we hold public servants accountable to promote transformation:

“Growth, development and transformation depend on a strong and capable state.”

This is a sweeping and well-articulated picture of the length and breadth of the work that needs to be done to create an inclusive South Africa. Listening to the SONA, I was inspired and said “send me” along with the president.

And yet, I am also very aware of the long journey ahead. Just five days after the SONA was delivered, the Finance Minister articulated a plan in his annual budget speech that is blatantly anti-poor. I was reminded again that the SONA cannot remain just nice-sounding words, if we truly want to see transformation.

In order for Ramaphosa’s vision to be actualised, where we “build a society in which all may be free, in which all may be equal before the law and in which all may share in the wealth of our land and have a better life,” we must hold ourselves, our companies and our country’s leadership accountable to the consistent promotion of social justice and inclusion for all.


Nene Molefi is the CEO of Mandate Molefi HR Consultants and the author of “A Journey of Diversity & Inclusion in South Africa: Guidelines for Leading Inclusively.” In addition to consulting for a wide range of companies and executive teams in South Africa and internationally, she is a member of the Diversity Collegium, a think tank of globally recognised diversity experts.


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