President Jacob Zuma's Oral Replies to the National Assembly in Cape Town. South africa. 15/03/2012

The president needs to spring a surprise in this year’s State of the Nation address to galvanise the country, says Craig Dodds.

President Jacob Zuma will not get any opportunities better than Thursday evening, when he delivers his final State of the Nation address of this term, to spell out for voters why they should put their cross next to his face in the coming elections.

He will have a national, prime-time television audience and the fact that the opening of Parliament is not meant to be a campaign platform won’t matter if he can achieve two things: frame the assessment of his administration’s performance in favourable terms and put on the table a set of objectives for the next term that will persuade voters things are looking up.

After five long years in the shadow of the Great Recession, limited job creation, an alarming spike in the levels of discontent in many areas and a scandal-prone presidency, Zuma somehow needs to signal that his next term will be a new chapter.

He can kick off with some highlights from his administration’s showreel.

When he took office in 2009, average life expectancy was nudging under 50, having plummeted from a high of 62 in 1990 as a result of the HIV/Aids pandemic. Now, thanks to the largest state-sponsored antiretroviral programme in the world, it is back up to 59.6 years.

In 2008, 12.4 million people received social grants, compared to just over 16 million last year. Almost four million more people and their families were protected from the worst ravages of poverty thanks to this system, and its effect in stimulating the informal economy in the poorest areas may not have been fully realised yet.

On their own, these are major achievements.

Subtract them from the past five years and the country today would have been in deep trouble.

Zuma will justifiably dwell on these and other milestones but, commendable as they may be, they have been trumpeted before and will not galvanise his audience.

For that, Zuma needs to spring a surprise.

In these lean times it should preferably be something that gives people hope – especially those struggling to make ends meet.

A legislated national minimum wage – as suggested in the ANC’s election manifesto – would fit the bill nicely but there’s a way to go before it could be implemented. It’s likely Zuma will announce plans to get it off the ground, however.

He will also have to talk about jobs, another key manifesto pledge.

Given that he has admitted his 2011 promise of 5 million jobs over 10 years will not be met, and the fact that the term “job opportunities” has been greeted with derision in some quarters, he’s going to have to map out a detailed plan for achieving the new 6 million target.

Fortunately, just as he inherited many challenges not of his own making, though he contributed a few more, he should benefit over the next five years from an improved global economic outlook.

But whatever positives he can offer, Zuma will have to address, even if obliquely, some of the glaring negatives of his tenure.

For one thing, he is now synonymous with the Nkandla scandal – to the extent that he might as well have the word stamped on his forehead.

It must be galling to the president that his private sanctuary is now the source of a very public humiliation – discussed in incredulous tones on taxis, trains and passenger planes across the land.

But he is highly unlikely to utter the word “Nkandla” himself in this speech.

That would open the door for opposition MPs, in the debate that follows, to tear into Nkandla and ignore almost everything else he has said.

They’ll find a way to introduce it anyway, but he’s not obliged to hand them an invitation.

What he can do is insist that corruption will be stamped out by the next administration and he may even announce some new initiative, while pretending to be oblivious to his credibility deficit on this score.

He must also talk about the slide into lawlessness, violence and the police brutality that has accompanied a steady increase in protest activity.

He talked tough in last year’s speech but things have not improved and the police are fast losing the respect of communities – if, given where we come from, they ever had it.

That is a crisis with very troubling implications for the future.

The ANC has already indicated in the case of Mothlutlung it will crack down on local government representatives and officials who use their office to line their pockets, drawing the wrath of communities, but Zuma will want to drive the message home.

To complement it, he could set out a plan to heal the SAPS.

On this front his administration started on the wrong footing, reintroducing military ranks and calling on the police to fight fire with fire in the face of a public perception that crime was getting out of control.

Zuma could do worse than to announce the recommendations of the National Development Plan (NDP) on safety and security will be implemented, starting with a return to the emphasis on the demilitarised police “service”, rather than “force”.

In fact, the NDP, the hymn sheet we’re all supposed to sing from for the next couple of decades, is a beacon he is likely to focus on heavily.

It may not be the panacea for all our ills some claim it to be but it seems to have widespread support and captures the elusive thing Zuma needs most to conjure in his speech – hope.

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Political Bureau