South African President Jacob Zuma, center, gives his speech during the opening of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, Feb 9, 2012. South African President Jacob Zuma gave the state of the nation address during the opening of parliament in Cape Town. (AP Photo/Mike Hutchings, Pool)

President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address Speech will accentuate positive, writes Marianne Merten.


When President Jacob Zuma delivers the State of the Nation address tomorrow, he will want to firmly shut the book on a tough year or so which, after his election as ANC president with overwhelming support at the party’s Mangaung conference, saw him booed in front of global leaders at Madiba’s memorial service.

With elections set down for May 7, this State of the Nation Address is clearly a pre-poll, not-to-be-scoffed-at opportunity to outline his administration’s achievements in the past five years – and to pronounce on what can be expected in future, particularly on the job front.

Amid a plethora of economic woes from stubbornly high unemployment rates, to below-expectation economic growth, consumers remain under pressure from petrol and food price hikes, and most recently, an interest rate increase.

It is not a challenge all of the current administration’s making, tied in as it is with global financial trends, but the Zuma administration is being held responsible for dealing with it.

As South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy following the 1994 elections, the emphasis of the address will be on improvements made, and the message that the country is a better place to live in today. This has emerged as a theme in recent public statements by ministers, and in the ANC election manifesto.

Among the achievements are an improved matric pass rate for the Class of 2013, the increasing numbers of South Africans on antiretroviral treatment – now 2.1 million at more than 3 540 health-care centres – and the voluntary testing and counselling campaign which has reached more than 18 million in the past two years.

Also a success is the expansion of social security to 16 million poor South Africans through grants, which, according to Statistics SA, are the main income in 35 percent of black African homes and 15 percent of coloured households.

The Stats SA report “South Africa’s Young Children: Their Parents and Home Environment, 2012” also shows grants remain a lifeline: 66 percent of children under five receive social support, either through foster care or child-support grants.

The state has become the largest creator of jobs and job opportunities, and training, through several community-focused employment initiatives like the Expanded Public Works Programme.

Concrete announcements on the government’s key economic driver, its trillion-rand, multi-year infrastructure delivery programme covering everything from railways and transport corridors, water and sewerage provisioning to power stations, can also be expected in the wake of several openings since late last year of sinter plants, dams and new school buildings.

While the gains made are clear, the past year has been a torrid one for Zuma, marked by a series of scandals of which the R208 million taxpayer-funded security upgrades at his Nkandla homestead are refusing to go away. The spy tapes, the key to the dropping of more than 700 corruption charges Zuma faced until April 2009, also focused close attention on the president for much of last year.

The spy tapes are part of the DA’s years-long court application for a review of the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Zuma, which is set to continue later this year.

Extracts of the tapes were cited by then acting prosecutions boss Mokotedi Mpshe in his argument that the prosecution had been politically motivated and could not proceed. These charges stemmed from the conviction of Zuma’s former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, but were thrown out of court on technical grounds by Judge Chris Nicholson in 2008. Instead of redrafting the charges, the NPA dropped charges against Zuma on the eve of the 2009 elections.

Meanwhile, Zuma’s speaking gaffes, like describing the e-tolled highways around Joburg as “not some national road in Malawi” – which sparked a diplomatic spat – have not helped him in the past year.

Now a reality, e-tolls and the related billing debacles remain deeply unpopular, not just for those living in Gauteng. When the president takes to the podium at tomorrow’s joint sitting in Parliament, he does so against the backdrop of a series of community protests, in which at least 10 people reportedly have been killed by the police across the country since last month.

Police statistics, and those kept by civil society organisations monitoring such matters, show the number of such protests has increased sharply.

Ostensibly these protests are against the lack of service delivery, but research indicates that frustration over unresponsive municipal politicians and officials was a key trigger.

Against this, and the auditor-general’s repeat findings on government misspending of almost R30 billion on wasteful, unauthorised and fruitless expenditure, the multimillion-rand Nkandla security upgrades, including a fire pool, a R1m cattle culvert and the relocation of a chicken coop, rankle.

The public works task team report, declassified and released in December, blamed officials and contractors for cost overruns and procurement violations, but all eyes remain on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s inquiry.

Opposition parties are set to make hay from this, as they have done over the landing of guests invited to a family wedding of the politically connected Guptas in May at the Waterkloof Air Force Base. During military disciplinary proceedings, one of the SANDF officers testified about being told by the then chief of state protocol, Bruce Koloane, that “Number 1”, aka Zuma, knew of the arrival.

However, during parliamentary question time in November Zuma dismissed such claims.

“There are so many, thousands of people who land at airports in this country… The president knows nothing about those people… I have given the answer: I have no knowledge, I know nothing about it,” he said.

To date Koloane is the only official sanctioned by being demoted for his role in the debacle, which involved three aircraft, seven helicopters, 88 vehicles and 194 state employees.

Controversy also erupted over the deployment of the SANDF to the Central African Republic following the deaths of 13 soldiers in a rebel onslaught of that country’s capital, Bangui. Two more soldiers later died in South Africa.

Zuma was grilled over whether he correctly and properly informed Parliament, one of several such lines of attack on Zuma’s relationship with the national legislature.

And questions about governance stability were also raised after Zuma announced his fourth cabinet reshuffle in July. Polls have indicated Zuma’s popularity has significantly dipped from when he became president in 2009.

The repeated boos in front of global leaders at the December memorial service for Nelson Mandela are seen by some as proof of this deteriorating standing, even if the ANC has dismissed this as bad behaviour instigated by a few.

Although Zuma is the face of the ANC election campaign, speculation persists he may not serve a full second term in office. Will the occasion of the State of the Nation Address be the occasion when the president shakes off a torrid year?

It is up to Zuma to provide the energy and drive that may just provide what so many South Africans are looking for from him and the government and governing party he leads: hope and a plan, backed up by political will and unbiased administrative commitment to follow through.

+ Marianne Merten is the Cape Argus’s senior political correspondent.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus