State of the Nation
It was framed around a strong theme, and it had a constant refrain running through it. It made a fairly strong argument, though not one that was invulnerable to dispute.
It had numbers and statistics to back up some of its claims. Under different circumstances, President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address (SONA) could have been a very good speech indeed.
In fact the context of it was so momentous, it needed just a few more ingredients to count as possibly historic.
A more confident orator perhaps, speech writing that was slightly more imaginative, even an audience less argumentative than the opposition benches of a Parliament already in election mode – with any of these it could have gone down in history as Zuma’s “Good news speech”.
“I have a dream”, “I am an African”, “I have a good story to tell” – it’s a strong enough refrain, one that everyone can easily remember, one that people can even be galvanised around.
On at least three occasions, the president reminded his audience that the South African government he leads in 2014 had “a good story to tell”.
Why then is one left with the impression that while Zuma delivered a fairly good speech, he missed the opportunity to deliver a truly historic one? The first limitation of course is Zuma himself: the vocal drone, the stuttering delivery, the inability to connect with the audience, the lack of spontaneity.
But the real reason, you suspect, is that the news is, like the curate’s egg, really only good in parts. Zuma “reported back” – his phrasing – on all the five priorities his government identified and targeted in 2009, education, health, rural development, safety and security, and job creation.
But pointedly, the “Good News” refrain occurred in relation to only two of these, health and education.
“We have a good story to tell in higher education,” he told his audience before launching on a list of achievements from increased enrolments in Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, the exponential growth in the budget of the National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme (incidentally the largest rate of growth of any government function), and opening two new universities and 12 FET colleges.
“We have a good story to tell in the improvement of health care too.” Here the president’s boasts encompassed 300 new primary health facilities including 160 new clinics, new hospitals built and older ones refurbished, the roll-out of National Health Insurance to improve tertiary health care standards in the private sector, and what is, according to the United Nations Aids Programme (UNAids), quite simply the largest and most successful public health sector treatment roll-out programme.
In these areas Zuma treads with a sure foot, safe in the knowledge that in two key areas that matter most to the ANC’s voting constituency, there are tangible successes whose genesis can be traced back to 2009 or a time fairly close thereto.
Contrast this surefootedness with these phrases, which are almost curiously timid in comparison: “We have made good progress in the land reform programme”, “we have concrete examples of the success of the localisation programme”, “a decision has been taken to improve the functioning of local government”.
And of course, “we will in fact emerge stronger if we do the right things”.
This timid phraseology in the main was in reference to areas of work which directly or indirectly fall under the other three priority areas: the economy and jobs, rural development, crime and corruption.
The government is often at pains to point out that its performance on the economy must be understood against the backdrop of the bottom falling out of the global economy in 2008, giving Zuma and his finance minister in particular what was surely the world’s biggest hospital pass in economic management.
This is fair enough: one million jobs were lost in the South African economy between 2009 and 2012, something that would not have been avoided by any government given the international context.
The subtext in the Zuma government’s self-justifications is always that whereas his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, a man he is often compared to unfavourably, enjoyed two terms of office that coincided neatly with a global commodity super cycle (beginning in 2000 and ending in 2008, just as he was being unceremoniously booted from office), Zuma himself has had to govern through the largest global downturn since the Great Depression.
This is not unimportant in an economy with such deeply rooted structural limitations, but which nonetheless is so interlinked to global markets.
But it is also equally true the ANC under Zuma has fumbled and floundered on the key issue of economic policy, and continues to show a penchant for quick and easy solutions that are likely to win temporary friends while creating permanent enemies.
Take the thorny issue of the youth employment tax incentive, which the organised labour movement calls by its more blunt name: the youth wage subsidy. In an election year, the attraction of the scheme to the ANC is obvious.
At least half of all South Africans are now 25 years or younger, according to the latest population statistics. South Africa’s “youth bulge” is an ominous warning sign to its still geriatric ruling elite.
Unemployment is high, but youth unemployment is particularly bad.
At 45 percent it is nearly double the national average, and it’s as high as 60 percent among poor black youth, the ruling party’s electoral mainstay. But the rude haste with which the scheme is being pursued has put labour’s backs up, and the wage subsidy cannot be underplayed as a factor in the divisions that have undermined Cosatu, the ruling party’s most dependable ally at election time.
Nor has the ruling party or the government been able to cite any examples where handing over large amounts of cash in tax breaks to businesses has encouraged them to adopt employment and investment strategies that had any permanent effect on unemployment.
The tactics applied by the Treasury in particular in pursuit of the wage subsidy, have even threatened the viability of Nedlac, an institution as important as any if South Africa is to find lasting solutions out of the economic trap of low growth and high unemployment.
To be certain, Zuma will always be entrapped by the insurmountable reality of being Zuma. He can’t win, he came into office with just too much baggage and has often seemed determined to pile on more.
He presides over an ANC whose ties of ideology and principle are ever-loosening, and a tripartite alliance that is probably headed for a messy and damaging collapse.
He has yet to convince his party or his country that he has the energy and the gravitas to hold these centrifugal forces together, for the sake of however the greater good is decided. Too many are unwilling to listen to or believe him on a range of issues.
So while the story of South Africa 20 years into democracy may undoubtedly be a good one, it doesn’t follow that Jacob Zuma can lay claim to the same.
And that is perhaps the real niggle with last night’s State of the Nation address, that left you with a feeling that at least one question still remained to be answered.
Yes, of course South Africa 2014 is a much better place to live in than South Africa circa 1994. There’s a good story to tell here. But what does it have to do with you?
If Zuma can give satisfactory and believable answers to that over the next three months, few will care about the quality of his delivery when he returns to Parliament in May to assess the state of our nation as the new president of the republic for the next five years.
* Mde is Independent Group Editor: Op-ed & Analysis.