Parliament, Cape Town - Three months before the elections President Jacob Zuma focused on the country's economic challenges and the achievements of 20 years of ANC rule in his State of the Nation Address on Thursday.
Zuma said the country needed to boost economic growth to five percent and warned that strife in the mining sector should not be allowed to destroy an industry that employed more than half-a-million people and contributed R20 billion in tax revenue.
“We need a mining sector that works. Mining employs over half-a-million people. It is the biggest earner of foreign exchange in our country.”
He believed both the mining industry and trade unions were aware it was in their interest to resolve their dispute and government's intervention was yielding progress.
In a speech that began by saluting the legacy of former president Nelson Mandela, Zuma enumerated the achievements of South Africa's successive democratic governments since 1994, starting with burying an oppressive minority regime. They had made “South Africa a better place to live in now than it ever was before”.
He said GDP had grown to more than R3.5 trillion, jobs were being created again, and a record 15 million people were employed.
Zuma acknowledged that the country still faced daunting problems in overcoming inequality, poverty, and unemployment. He tempered this with a rallying cry to work together and said all government's administrative programmes were focused on eradicating these problems.
He reiterated that it was crucial that business, labour and government join forces to double economic growth to create further jobs.
“We have to work together as government, business and labour to grow our economy at rates that are above five percent to be able to create the jobs we need.”
The president acknowledged it was an uphill battle, saying pressure on the rand would make government's infrastructure programme more expensive.
“However, export companies, particularly in the manufacturing sector, should take advantage of the weaker rand and the stronger global recovery.
“While we have these difficulties, we know that we can cope with this period of turbulence. We have done so before in the past five years. We will, in fact, emerge stronger if we do the right things.”
Turning to problems certain to feature in the opposition's election campaign, Zuma sought to minimise the increase in service delivery protests and said government was taking firm action to fight corruption.
He said it was worrying that protests were increasingly marked by premeditated violence, but insisted better delivery was fuelling impatience.
“The dominant narrative in the case of the protests in South Africa has been to attribute them to alleged failures of government,” he said.
“However the protests are not simply the result of 'failures' of government, but also of the success in delivering basic services. When 95 percent of households have access to water, the five who still need to be provided for, feel they cannot wait a moment longer. Success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations.”
He conceded that some communities “especially in informal settlements and rural areas” still lacked basic services, but said government was intensifying efforts to change this, especially in the 23 municipalities with the greatest number of backlogs.
The president said government planned to proceed soon with issuing licences for shale gas exploration in the Karoo and procuring nuclear energy.
The development of petroleum, especially shale gas, would be a game-changer for the Karoo and the South African economy. Having evaluated the risks and opportunities, the final regulations would be released soon and be followed by the processing and granting of licences.
He added: “We expect to conclude the procurement of 9600 megawatts of nuclear energy”.