04/09/2012.President Jacob Zuma during the cabinet lekgotla that was held at SM Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria Picture: Masi Losi

Cape Town - Barely a month into 2013, the promise of a new year has begun to wear a trifle thin, with South Africans facing ever-intensifying financial pressures amid soaring petrol and food prices, looming electricity hikes and ominous rumblings from labour and the unions.

All eyes are on President Jacob Zuma to see if he can conjure up in his Valentine’s Day State of the Nation address a bouquet of goodies to convince South Africans that the government is on the right track and all will be well.

Indications are that job creation, particularly providing young people with skills and training, will feature prominently in the president’s speech, which marks the opening of Parliament.

Education, infrastructure development and ways to boost growth are also topics likely to receive the president’s attention.

This year’s address takes place against a lacklustre outlook for economic growth at home and abroad.

Forecasts peg South Africa’s growth at around 2 to 5 percent, far less than the continental average of 6 percent plus.

With figures like these, and especially in the light of last year’s downgrades by international ratings agencies, the government will have to work hard to overcome dampened enthusiasm among potential investors.

This week’s unemployment statistics did not lift the mood: for the first time, jobs were lost over the festive season-dominated last quarter of 2012 – when businesses usually take on more workers, even if only on a casual basis.

Also up is the number of discouraged jobseekers, those who have simply given up hope of ever finding work. This now stands at 2.3 million South Africans among the 15 million described as “not economically active”. There are 33 million people of working age, between the ages of 15 and 65.

Labour discontent on mines and farms is also expected to spike: several mines start their biannual wage negotiations soon and there are reports that farmers have responded by retrenching workers after the introduction of a new agricultural minimum wage of R105 a day.

It is a tough environment for Zuma to provide a clear and optimistic message on his government’s plans.

It is anticipated that key among these will be an outline of a package of measures to encourage youth employment as well as indications of how the government plans to promote better teaching practices.

Both issues are sensitive.

The ANC’s call, made at its national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla last week, for teaching to be declared an essential service has been rejected by teacher unions across the political spectrum as unconstitutional and unworkable.

However, in the fallout from the initial tough-talking, the ANC appears to have backed down, signalling that what it meant by teaching becoming an essential service was more about forging a social compact than about any possible legislative interventions or legal strictures.

The softened stance would be in line with the Mangaung conference resolutions, which simply highlight education as a “national priority” to be protected against disruptions from industrial action and service delivery protests, while, at the same time, stressing that action is urgently required to uproot ill-discipline, vandalism and “unsavoury relations” between teachers and pupils.

Also resolved in conference discussions at Mangaung was a call for a presidential commission to review salaries and working conditions in the education and health sectors in order to protect these sectors as “national priorities”. Zuma could well use the State of the Nation address as a platform to announce further developments in this regard.

Two years after the youth wage subsidy was announced in the 2011 address, expectations are high that the government will announce a comprehensive package of measures to break the back of youth unemployment.

Discussions at Nedlac, the government, labour and business negotiating chamber, stalled over Cosatu’s opposition to a business subsidy for young workers amid concern that older workers would lose their jobs.

Cosatu’s stance is supported by the Progressive Youth Alliance, including the ANC Youth League, Young Communist League and Congress of SA Students.

Nedlac is now discussing an accord on youth employment which might be finalised before Zuma takes to the podium in Parliament on Thursday.

No doubt, Zuma will highlight the government’s delivery achievements. Millions of people have gained access to safe water, sanitation, electricity and state-subsidised housing. In education, South Africa is just a fraction of a percent short of universal Grade 1 enrolment and more matrics passed the final exam last year than before.

The system of social grants has been extended to 15 million South Africans over the past few years, and provides a crucial safety net to the poor.

More South Africans are on antiretroviral treatment amid a successful testing campaign, thanks to which about 20 million South Africans knew their status by the middle of last year.

The question remains whether South Africans will be presented with anything fundamentally new.

Buoyed by Zuma’s overwhelming re-election as party president at Mangaung, the ANC has set the tone for “doing things differently” to achieve results.

This was reinforced after the party’s NEC lekgotla – attended also by its cabinet ministers, who met separately at this week’s cabinet lekgotla – where the emphasis was on practical interventions to achieve results.

This year will be the test of whether the government has the capacity and/or the will to implement its plans and promises, many of which have been around so long that they are getting somewhat scuffed and dog-eared from being dusted off in time for the State of the Nation address.

It is not the first time that the quality of education has been highlighted: the so-called “triple Ts” – teachers, textbooks and time in class – were stressed in the past two State of the Nation addresses.

So, too, was the government’s multibillion-rand infrastructure development programme.

Already in place are youth employment programmes like the Rural Youth Development Corps, aimed at ensuring that at least one person per household is employed as a “para-professional”; and state-driven, state-funded jobs – schemes focusing on youth and women, such as the expanded public works programme.

Last year the Limpopo textbooks debacle hit the courts and headlines; this year thousands of pupils have returned to learn in mud schools or under trees, notwithstanding the government’s pledges, since former president Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address in 2004, to eradicate such unconducive learning environments.

Talk of renewing rail infrastructure has made the rounds for at least two years, as have infrastructure development projects in road networks, dams and the like.

While progress might have been made behind the scenes – last year, the presidential infrastructure co-ordinating commission identified and secured funding for 17 turnkey projects – there’s been no news yet on delivery or sod turnings.

Perhaps, following the NEC lekgotla’s rejection of Eskom’s request for 16 percent annual electricity price hikes over the next five years, following an average of 25 percent hikes since 2008, there will be some good news on that front.

Thursday will show whether Zuma can woo not only parliamentarians and political parties, but all South Africans.

Weekend Argus