Parliament – President Jacob Zuma responded to his critics in Parliament on Thursday with a promise to prevent further damage to the economy and a call for national unity, as he closed the debate on his poorly received State of the Nation Address.
Zuma told a joint sitting of the House that preventing a further downgrade to South Africa’s credit rating was among government’s top priorities and stressed that if economic growth was not revived, there would no job-creation and existing jobs would be under threat.
But he also devoted part of his speech to call on South Africa to fight racism — an issue repeatedly flagged by the African National Congress as he faces mounting opposition and popular calls to step down ahead of municipal polls — and said he placed as much importance on nation-building as on mending the flagging economy.
“Nation-building is as important to our country as economic renewal. We must heal the scars of apartheid and build a united nation. Racism is an enemy of humanity.”
On the economy, Zuma suggested that he had taken note of the concerns raised to him in recent meetings by business leaders. These included the real risk of a further credit-rating downgrade, restrictive laws and labour conditions and the performance of state-owned enterprises. Last week, he was ridiculed by his political opponents for claiming that the latter were doing well.
“High up on our agenda is to prevent a sovereign downgrade,” Zuma said, adding that a downgrade “would have an adverse effect for all South Africans”.
The president said while government could not alter the global factors that were hampering economic growth, it would work to address circumstances at home that were contributing to this.
“Since we cannot change the global economic outlook we will focus on correcting domestic circumstances that have affected confidence in the local economy.”
After promising last week that the state would cut unnecessary spending, he announced that it would no longer advertise for tenders in the press, saying this would save hundreds of millions of rands.
He also paused to call for greater unity among political parties, but shot down a proposal during the debate by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa for an economic “Codesa”, borrowing a name from the negotiations in the 1990s that set the terms for South Africa’s political transition.
The president said he foresaw that parties would camp on their divergent positions on the economy and fail to find common ground.
“You believe it will solve problems, I am not sure. I can tell you we will argue from the time we start to the end.”
He then spoke directly to the disruptions and insults that marked not only the opening of Parliament but the debate of the past two days.
Looking markedly more at ease that he did during his actual address last Thursday, Zuma pleaded with MPs to behave with more dignity and respect in Parliament.
“I think we are not doing good for voters, the people who took the decision to send us here. What it is that they learn from us,” he said.
“Let us disagree with respect. It is a plea I am making,” he added.
Zuma said he approved when, during the state of the nation address, opposition leader Mmusi Maimane distanced himself from the disruptive conduct of the Economic Freedom Fighters”, who chanted “Zupta Must Fall” in a crude reference to his links with the Gupta family and were ordered out of the chamber.
“I supported you, Sir, because I thought you were making a good point,” Zuma said, but went on to add that he was disappointed that shortly afterwards members of Maimane’s Democratic Alliance “your party was also doing the same”. He hastened to add that he was not singling out the opposition.
“I believe when we say ‘honourable members’, we mean it and people must understand the word to be really serious, we cannot call ourselves honourable and behave in a dishonourable manner. It is not helping the image of the country.
“I am talking to all members of parliament, referring to everyone. It is a serious point.”
As Speaker Baleka Mbete moved to close the sitting after Zuma concluded his speech, the United Democratic Movement’s Nqabayomzi Kwanka said the comments from young people on social media on the state of the nation address suggested that they had remembered the insults and not the substance of what the president said.
He said there was a risk therefore that MPs were, by bad example, creating a culture of intolerance that would lead to instability.
“My concern and our concern as a party is that we are inculcating a culture of intolerance which at some point is going to lead to political instability,” Kwankwa said .
“We have to change course before it’s too late because we all have a responsibility to build a South Africa in which all of us look forward to a sunrise of our tomorrow.”
Mbete thanked him for his remarks.