Jacob Zuma’s ill-preparedness for his State of the Nation address may be health-related or may be typical of this presidency, says Mcebisi Ndletyana.
Johannesburg - “I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favourable prospects of our public affairs.”
With those lines, President George Washington began the first of what would become a customary State of the Union address in America.
That was January 8, 1790, and such presidential addresses would become a customary feature of the democratic world. It is one of the ways in which the executive accounts to parliament, the representative of the people.
While the principle remained uncontested, its expression and significance have changed. Presiding over a fragile Union which had just emerged from a war, Washington considered it paramount to communicate directly with his fellow politicians.
It was critical for strengthening the newly formed Republic. Once delivered in Congress, the speech was spread to the rest of the populace through newspapers.
Thomas Jefferson, who took office in 1801, was less enamoured with the State of the Union address.
For him the ritual was reminiscent of an aristocratic background, “a monarch’s speech from the throne”. And Jefferson was determined to affirm the Republican-ness of the “new world”.
He quickly dispensed with the address in his first year, choosing to communicate through written notes which were read to Congress by clerks.
It was a Republication protest against “aristocratic tendencies”. Jefferson’s successors emulated him and it took 112 years until another president addressed the American Congress in person. That was Woodrow Wilson and the year was 1913.
Wilson’s resumption of the State of the Union address reflected the demands of the time. America was modernising, and that required the support and commitment of the rest of the population.
Wilson, for instance, used the address to announce tariff and bank reforms.
He figured he stood a better chance of persuading his colleagues, whose support he needed, through a personal appearance.
That also marked a change from the address being a report on the previous year’s activities to an outline of a legislative programme the president intended to pursue in the coming parliamentary session.
The speech, in other words, became a platform for the president not only to announce his vision for the future but to mobilise the populace behind that vision.
The invention of radio made direct presidential addresses even more enticing. Now presidents had a medium to communicate with a wider audience instantly.
President Calvin Coolidge had the honour of being the first to have his address broadcast on radio in 1923.
And President Harry Truman followed in 1947, distinguishing himself in presidential history with the first television broadcast of his speech.
President Lyndon Johnson completed the transition of the speech from a presidential function to a mobilisation forum in 1965. He changed the time of the speech from mid-afternoon to evening.
This is prime time, when people are back from work, and thus guarantees the widest possible audience.
The importance of this democratic ritual hasn’t been lost to our non-racial Republic.
Our presidents, too, have used this paramount moment in our parliamentary calendar to fashion the “rainbow nation”.
The fourth president, Jacob Zuma, like America’s Johnson, even changed the time from 2pm to 7pm, clearly feeling that what he says is important and should be heard by as many people as possible.
Changing the time was creative. Informing the citizenry of what the executive is doing forms a critical part of our democratic society.
The president’s address on Tuesday, however, made me wonder whether the change of time was really worth it.
Of course the president, because of his educational limitations, could never deliver a written speech like the legally-trained Nelson Mandela or the philosopher-president, Thabo Mbeki.
And it is not the fluency of reading that interests me, but the level of preparedness. Zuma was completely unprepared for that speech. He was evidently a stranger to what was supposedly in it.
The ill-preparedness could be ascribed to lack of time due to illness. This is possible. After all, the president has occasionally in the past delivered speeches more competently. My sense, though, is that the problem is a lot deeper than preparations for a speech.
It goes to the essence of this presidency: it is more about show than substance.
And this happens when the person of the president considers himself more effective than the institutions of government.
Consider, for instance, the habit of surprise visits the president took up early in his first term. Caught unawares, councillors did not have time to fix or conceal problems in their communities.
Residents promptly took advantage of the presence of the big man and offloaded their problems.
And Zuma did not disappoint, promising that councillors would fix their problems promptly. Other residents elsewhere in the country, who didn’t have the privilege of presidential visits, were invited to call a presidential line and report their councillors.
None of this produced any significant change in service delivery. Instead, protests have escalated.
It is not that the president was insincere. One has no reason to doubt him. The problem lies with the institutions.
It is officials who ultimately carry out municipal functions. If they lack the required zeal, or if there is no political oversight, nothing will happen. Pravin Gordhan will not achieve anything as local government minister if there is no backing from his party to whip errant politicians into line.
Eastern Cape’s Mbashe municipality, for instance, has had six municipal managers in three years. Obviously nothing happens in a municipality when one manager after another is fired even before she settles in.
One has just been appointed, but he’s not permanent.
His brief, apparently, is to find a permanent replacement. Now you tell me – why would anyone be keen to replace himself in what is a very lucrative post? Really now!
It is hard work behind the scenes, that gets things done. Admittedly, Gordhan is not a showman, but he appreciates hard work.
Unfortunately for him, the ANC’s dwindling support and the looming local government elections add to the enormity of his task.
Those who have lost out on parliamentary seats will focus on becoming councillors. But the waiting list there is already long.
So, the jostling for nomination might even be uglier than 2011, when things got so bad that the ANC had to launch an investigation uncovering pretty unsavoury stuff.
The red-overalled MPs might do well to appreciate the hollowness of showmanship. Like any other institution, Parliament is founded on rules.
Flouting them invites disruptive objections from other MPs. In other instances, one can even be ejected from the Assembly.
Obviously it doesn’t make sense to use language that invites disruptions or ejection. Nothing is achieved with that.
Surely, the Economic FreedomFighters do not measure the success of their revolution by the number of objections or ejections they invite.
Their success will lie in old-fashioned, disciplined, hard work.
* Mcebisi Ndletyana is Head of the Political Economy Faculty at MISTRA.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.