Judith February

In Harriet Flower’s book Roman Republics, she writes of the “crisis” of the late Roman Republic from 133-49BC.

How, some asked, could this decline be defined as a “slow burn” crisis of almost 80 years? We tend to use the word crisis rather loosely in modern parlance. There has been a global financial crisis since 2008, or our country is in a “crisis of unemployment”.

Our social fabric is in a state of crisis as rape, murder and crime in general have spiralled out of control. We have a shortage of skills; that must be a crisis.

South Africa’s story today shows many signs of unravelling, yet it remains a society with extraordinary recuperative powers.

Interestingly, the definition of “crisis” seems to have gone through something of an evolution over the years.

Usually it is described as a “point of time of deciding anything, the decisive moment or turning point”, yet lately it has also been applied “to times of difficulty, insecurity and suspense in politics or commerce”.

As the president arives at Parliament in Cape Town this evening amid pomp, ceremony and jarring excess, the question really should be whether recent events – Marikana, platinum-belt mining chaos, farmworkers’ strikes, the burning of vineyards, service delivery protests and the rape and murder of Anene Booysen – will be seen as a “turning point” and a “decisive moment” for decision-making or whether these political and social crises will simply be prolonged through indecision, inaction and a slavish addiction to ideology.

Zuma delivers his State of the Nation speech in a somewhat contradictory environment. On the one hand he enters Parliament as the unchallenged leader in his party, post-Mangaung. His position has no doubt been strengthened within the party.

On the other hand, the battle for the 2014 elections has already begun and the mud-slinging between the ANC and its alliance partner on the idea of a youth wage subsidy, farmworkers’ wages and the right of teachers to strike is in full swing.

The ANC and Cosatu have also been in heated battles about the passage of the so-called secrecy bill as well as the e-tolling issue. Of course Cosatu itself is divided, so for its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, this is going to be a year to tough it out on the issues of principle.

For Zuma the year will be spent trying to woo Cosatu, but at the same time he will be under pressure to deliver on the promises of last year’s State of the Nation address.

But this is a national stage and the president will have to be convincing if he is to send the right messages to those protesting daily on the streets and to investors and businesses.

Last year the pivot of the speech was infrastructure, and the announcement of the presidential infrastructure co-ordination commission.

It was the “big idea” of the speech and we look for feedback on the interventions made this past year. There are 23 strategic infrastructure plans, yet progress towards the much-vaunted Infrastructure Development Act seems slow.

So what will Zuma’s “big idea” be this year? The country looks for leadership during these times and the lacklustre Zuma has provided very little, leaving his ministers to “front up”, with mixed results.

Yet it is on other bigger societal issues that the president should also lead – corruption, violent crime, the serious questions being raised about the “securitisation” of the state and legislation being pushed through like the secrecy bill and the new draft law on the registration of not-for-profit organisations. The trends regarding secrecy have become almost predictable under this administration.

It therefore remains to be seen whether the president will be bold tonight. Will this year’s State of the Nation address speak to ordinary South Africans and be the decisive game-changer the country needs? For that to happen, the president will probably need to be decisive regarding the youth wage subsidy to tackle unemployment; he will need to deal with the crisis in education.

He will also need to strengthen the arm of the public protector and others who deal with corruption.

l February is executive director: democracy and governance at the Human Sciences Research Council. She writes in her personal capacity.