Each State of the Nation speech presented different states of national being for each president since democracy, writes Thebe Ikalafeng.
Almost 20 years ago, on May 24, 1994, Nelson Mandela delivered his historic first State of the Nation address as the first democratic president of South Africa.
In arguably his most eloquent and certainly most important speech since the Rivonia Trial, he laid out an inspired vision for reconciliation, reconstruction and reintegration to bring South Africa out of the abyss: “A rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” he surmised in his inaugural speech.
In a typical gesture that would symbolise his reconciliation agenda, he started his address with an extensive acknowledgement of and reading of the late Afrikaner poet Ingrid Jonker’s The child is not Dead, which was written in the aftermath of the Sharpeville anti-pass demonstration massacre.
Long before he would have a historic visit and afternoon tea with apartheid architect, Dr HF Verwoerd’s widow, Betsy, he advised South Africans: “We must, constrained by and yet regardless for the accumulated effect of our historical burdens, seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny.”
He knew the power of sports to reconcile a nation long before the historic moment when he joined Francois Pienaar to hoist the Webb Ellis trophy victoriously at the 1995 Rugby World Cup or 2010 when South Africa became the first African country to host the Fifa World Cup: “In our dreams we have a vision of a country at play in our sports fields.”
He laid out a Reconstruction and Development Plan to deliver the better life promise with decent housing, access to electricity, water and health care, decent jobs and education, addressing youth issues with the establishment of the National Commission on Youth Development, and respect for the rule of law.
Delivered a day ahead of Africa Day (May 25), his State of the Nation address was a perfect occasion to announce the reintegration of South Africa into the global community – UN Security Council and the Commonwealth, and affirm an identity with Africa and the world: “We are Africans and a citizen of the world.”
While over the years, the RDP has made way for Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) during the Thabo Mbeki tenure, and now the National Development Plan (NDP) in the Jacob Zuma era, Mandela’s maiden State of the Nation address was the barometer for moving South Africa forward, and the baton for the ruling party; for Mbeki and Zuma.
It set the terms of contract between the people, the world and the ruling ANC.
Although in 1994 it would have seemed odd to imagine any opposition to the ANC’s agenda for a better life and a universal rejection of apartheid South Africa’s evil past, Mandela’s vision nonetheless defined the battleground for the opposition that represented 35 percent of the country’s electorate.
Twenty years hence, the nation is in a different state, and created a challenging context for Jacob Zuma’s last first-term State of the Nation.
Whereas Mandela’s State of the Nation was delivered off the first democratic elections, Zuma’s is ahead of and postured to shape the dialogue for the May 7 elections and the first real opposition challenge to the ruling party’s dominance.
It was delivered with the DA’s challenge to build on their 17 percent in 2009 against the ANC’s goal to consolidate its 66 percent majority in mind. Mandela did not have the DA, EFF and AgangSA distracting his vision. Whereas there was relative “labour peace” and a harmonious relationship between government, labour and citizens, between 1994 and 1999, there has been an unprecedented surge in industrial strike action since 2005.
There are now as many as 32 strikes a day this year encompassing labour and service delivery, with the devastating 2012 Marikana massacres firmly lodged in the conscience of South Africa as the low-light of a troubling era.
Whereas the RDP as the anchor of “a better life for all” agenda was a relatively universally understood development agenda, the NDP has had a challenged debut as the 2030 vision to accelerate economic growth, eliminate poverty, and reduce inequality.
Whereas Mandela and Mbeki squarely located South Africa within the African agenda, Zuma’s unfortunate “don’t think like an African” and disparaging Malawi off-the-cuff comments reinforced a growing pan-African perception that South Africa was the southern part of Africa, but South of Africa – beyond Africa. While South Africa’s GDP grew 2.5 percent from $80 billion in 1994 to around $400bn fuelled by prudent monetary, fiscal policy and consistent growth, the latest World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report shows South Africa’s declining competitiveness.
It has been overtaken by Mauritius with only an $11.5bn GDP, and slipped one place to 53 out of 148 nations, from a historic high of 35.
While the GDP grew an average of 3.2 percent since 1994, peaking at 5.6 percent in 2006 and a low of 1.5 percent in 2009, it is now projected to grow at 2-3 percent, putting a challenge for the government to maintain its development agenda. Between 1980 and 1994, during the apartheid era and conflict, it achieved a 1.4 percent average GDP growth rate.
A stark contrast to the rest of rising sub-Saharan African nations which in the last 13 years recorded a 5.6 percent average growth rate. The Economist projects that seven of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world by 2015 will be African. South Africa is not among them.
While the sporting exploits of Josia Thugwane, Penny Heyns, Chad le Clos, Springboks in 1995 and 2007 Rugby World Cups and Bafana Bafana ranked best in Africa and 16 in the world in 1996 affirmed Mandela’s belief in sport as a unifier and embodiment of the upstart democracy’s competitiveness, recently Bafana Bafana’s performance has become a microcosm of brand South Africa – unequal and inconsistent, despite the enormous talent and resources at our disposal.
It is no coincidence that Bafana Bafana’s ranking now at a lowly 54 is comparable to South Africa’s World Economic Forum (WEF) Competitiveness ranking of 53 out of 148 states.
The 20th State of the Nation address of a democratic South Africa, while anchored around the 20-year achievements of the ruling party and the NDP as a vision of the future, finds a nation dealing with the key issues for South Africa identified in a recent government study as unemployment (62 percent), crime (33 percent), housing (26 percent), roads (22 percent) and corruption (20 percent).
While South Africa has made tremendous leaps in creating a better life for all and its position in the world, we are in many ways right where we started, with an urgent three-pillar challenge – reconciliation of the haves and have-nots, reconstruction and reintegration of South Africa to its rightful African and global place.
To move the country forward and deliver of Mandela and the ANC’s inaugural goals “to create jobs, promote peace and reconciliation, and to guarantee freedom for all South Africans”, South Africa will have to rethink its game plan. South Africa must mobilise around and actualise the NDP, fight rampant public sector corruption, and become competitive again.
But between the naive hope of the Mandela era and the despair and real challenges of the Zuma era, where the state seems in disrepair, few will disagree as an old post-slavery Baptist preacher once acknowledged: “Lord we ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God Almighty, we ain’t what we was.”
While South Africa can do and deserves better, it is a better life than it was 20 years ago.
But given the issues of the state of the nation today, the achievements of the last two decades are now history, and no longer a yardstick for a winning nation.