President Jacob Zuma addresses the media in Pretoria on progress made since the adoption of the Medium Term Strategic Framework, as outlined in his State of the Nation Address. Picture: EPA/KOPANO TLAPE

President Jacob Zuma’s updates on key planks in SA’s economic strategy were an act of leadership, writes Kuseni Dlamini.

Johannesburg -The economic and political situation in South Africa demands decisive and visible leadership from President Jacob Zuma’s administration. In what was, by most accounts, an unprecedented move, Zuma held two press conferences in one week.

One was an update on the government’s progress towards achieving key goals highlighted in the State of the Nation address in February. The other was an update on Operation Phakisa, a central plank in the Zuma administration’s service delivery, growth and development machine, modelled on Malaysia’s experience.

Although cynics and perpetual sceptics may dismiss Zuma’s move as an act of desperation, it has to be seen for what it is – an act of visible and felt leadership and communication with the public who are key stakeholders in the governance of the country.

We saw Zuma delivering his update to the public just as chief executives deliver updates to shareholders every quarter.

Zuma came across as credible and focused on key national tasks at hand that should seize the focus and attention of any head of state in a country facing the challenges we do.

The public does not necessarily have to like such updates, just as shareholders don’t invariably like updates they get from their chief executives – but it is crucial that updates are given. Presidents speak by speaking and by being silent on the issues that matter.

Those who succeed in building legacies for generations invariably speak on the issues that matter instead of remaining silent.

In times of crisis, the public needs inspiring leadership that demonstrates a compelling sense of solidarity with its plight, underpinned by tangible interventions to improve their lot.

Zuma’s style of leadership enables him to connect easily with people, especially when he expresses solidarity with their plight. He should do more of that. He has more to gain. Nothing to lose.

The government is its own worst enemy in not communicating well about the good things that it does and in not being proactive in admitting where things have gone wrong.

The Nkandla saga will remain a classic case study of how poor government communication can worsen a situation that could have been better managed proactively and decisively.

The ANC needs to focus on lowering the political cost of the Nkandla saga – in votes lost among the urban and middle-class voters that opposition parties will be targeting for next year’s local government elections and the 2019 general elections.

The same applies to the Marikana debacle, which the opposition will take to the ANC’s door through Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s involvement as a director and shareholder in Lonmin at the time of the massacre.

The ANC needs a strategy to avoid linking Ramaphosa with the Marikana massacre as he was cleared by the Farlam Commission. This would help avoid him being an electoral liability to the ANC as the EFF are determined to target him as the alleged architect of the Marikana massacre and therefore liable for the mowing down of ordinary, poor South Africans exercising their constitutional right to bargain collectively for better wages and living conditions.

This partly requires the ANC to find effective ways of reconnecting with the people of Marikana, who have become a proxy for ordinary people and their struggles against the (oppressive) state apparatus.

Thus far, the ANC seems to have handed the Marikana vote to the EFF and the United Democratic Movement on a silver platter.

This is similar to the radical youth vote, which has been handed on a silver platter to the EFF through the decline of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and the dithering over its next conference as leaders want to position favourites they believe will deliver the youth vote in their fight for top positions at the 2017 ANC elective conference.

It’s a toxic atmosphere.

The peaceful election (no underwear was taken off, contrary to fears) of Bathabile Dlamini as president of the ANC Women’s League should serve as a good example for the ANCYL for preparing and conducting an orderly elective conference. Dlamini and her collective of newly elected leaders are outstanding and tried and tested leaders of note who will reinvent the women’s league so it reclaims its lost glory in the tripartite alliance and the country at large.

The ANC needs to learn to develop a long-term strategic political perspective as its ally in China – the Chinese Communist Party – has done.

Succession issues are being driven by and influenced by bags of money.

They should be driven by political strategy and the national interest. These seem to be lacking.

The avalanche of retrenchment announcements, the slowing economic growth, and a weakening currency combined with the continuing pandemonium in Parliament as parties continue to lock horns on Nkandla are just the symptoms of the deeper economic and political challenges facing South Africa.

In addition, there is immense jostling for position in all political parties as the country edges closer to next year’s local government elections which, by all accounts, are set to be the most contested since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Rivalry within and between parties is set to intensify until the local government elections as party activists and parties jostle for pole position for deployment to cushy, lucrative positions and dominance in municipalities.

The ANC is the party that has more to lose than any other in the local government elections. Its dominance is to be fiercely contested in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane, Joburg and Ekurhuleni.

The party needs to reinvent its relationship and its messaging to the urban and middle class vote, which is fickle and easily swayed by fads in social media and the mainstream media.

The ANC’s massive and loyal rural vote is insulated from social and mainstream media influence as it is distrustful of any attack on the party of liberation, the party of Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu.

However, viewed from a global context, South Africa is not doing badly.

All emerging market economies are under pressure from the pending increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. All commodity-exporting countries, such as Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Angola, Peru, Colombia, Chile and others, face the same pressures and challenges as South Africa.

The difference will be the quality of response a country marshals to preserve its national economic interest and protect its citizens from the vagaries of globalisation.

South Africa has what it takes to weather the storm and mitigate the adverse consequences of globalisation for its people by deepening social solidarity, social cohesion and ensuring a joined-up and well-co-ordinated response by government, business, labour and civil society.

* Dlamini is a member of the National Council of the SA Institute of International Affairs at Wits University.

** The views expressed herer are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent