Cape Town -
In a State of the Nation address focused on the economy but delivering little more than an account of his five years in office, President Jacob Zuma moved firmly to address the recent spate of violent service delivery protests.
Addressing a joint sitting of Parliament on Thursday evening, Zuma described as “worrying” what appeared to be premeditated violence, with the use of petrol bombs and other weapons.
“The democratic government supports the right of citizens to express themselves... However, when protests threaten lives and property and destroy valuable infrastructure intended to serve the community, they undermine the very democracy that upholds the right to protests.”
While the loss of life was never “a small thing” and any loss of life at the hands of the police could not be overlooked or condoned, almost 800 police officers had been killed between 2005 and last year, Zuma said.
“The culture of violence originated from the apartheid past. We need to conduct an introspection in our effort to get rid of this scourge.”
Zuma argued that the success of service delivery – 95 percent of households had access to water – meant these protests were not simply the result of failures of government.
“Success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations,” he said.
Picking up the thread of “telling the good story” in his last State of the Nation address before the May 7 elections, Zuma underlined the country’s capacity to deal with economic hardship, pointing out that for the first time in years, more South Africans were in jobs.
“While we have these difficulties, we know that we can cope with this period of turbulence. We have done so in the past five years. We will emerge stronger, if we do the right things. We will have to work together as the government, business and labour to grow our economy at rates over 5 percent to be able to create the jobs we need.”
Outlining the importance of mining to the economy, contributing about R20 billion in taxes and employing about half a million people, Zuma went off-script with a message urging mining companies and trade unions to work together.
“In no way can we have conflict that destroys the economy… If the two sides don’t work together it affects the economy in the end,” Zuma said, adding that it should not be easy to declare a strike or a reduction of the workforce.
Strikes in the platinum belt are continuing as the deadlines for mining companies to improve miners’ working and living conditions under the mining charter come into force this year. Zuma did not mention Marikana, where police shot dead 34 miners in 2012.
While he put on record his administration’s achievements over the past five years, after highlighting the democratisation of the state and its institutions over the past 20 years, he dampened any expectations of concrete announcements.
“This is not an occasion to present the programme of action for this financial year. That programme will be presented by the new government after the elections,” Zuma said.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe welcomed the president’s comments on the service delivery protests, adding that the speech had also touched on all the important points, like jobs, the economy and infrastructure.
However, opposition parties were disappointed.
DA leader Helen Zille said there was never any doubt that South Africa was a better place today – but noted that the government had missed the job-creation targets it had set itself.
“Work opportunities are temporary replacements... while very important to relieve poverty, they are not a substitute for real jobs that happen because of economic growth,” Zille said.
DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said the speech was “dismal” and did not address the state of the nation.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said the rosy picture painted by Zuma contradicted the reality across the country in what was clearly an electioneering speech.
IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said Zuma was a “Mr Promise” who failed to follow through and was “insulting the intelligence of our people”.
Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota gave the speech a rating of at one out of 10, according to Sapa.
“President Jacob Zuma hoodwinked the nation during his State of the Nation address... All the things he said had nothing to do with the reality we know.”
Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder said it was an election speech: “It was a brag speech. It was all about the past.”
Pan Africanist Congress MP Alton Mpethi said he gave Zuma “four out of 10”, adding that his party was “very much disappointed”.
While the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) welcomed the address, it expressed concern about the silence on the proposed national health insurance plan and the progress of the presidential remuneration commission, which is to review salaries and working conditions in the public service.
Emerging markets analyst Peter Attard Montalto said the most used phrase in the speech was “we continue to.” as the speech clearly focused on the elections and had “virtually nothing much of interest to investors”. “(It) provided virtually no forward-looking elements on policy changes to address challenges in the economy or areas of action yet to be undertaken,” he said.
ANC MPs gave Zuma a standing ovation.