Prsident Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation Address in the joint sitting of the house in Parliament, Cape Town, 11/02/2016, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS
Prsident Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation Address in the joint sitting of the house in Parliament, Cape Town, 11/02/2016, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

Zuma is incapable of leading SA

By Vukani Mde - Group Op-ed Editor Time of article published Feb 12, 2016

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Compatriots, please understand…ah ahem, Jacob Zuma cannot lead. Mmh. He is both inherently incapable, and being studiously prevented by political opponents far more savvy than him in the art of politics in an open democracy.

What, after all, is political leadership if not the ability – no the instinct – to read moments, seize opportunities, and rise to occasions? All abilities our president lacks in abundance, and an instinct he clearly does not have.

We will return to Zuma’s distinctly uninspiring state of the nation speech and what it tells us about his inability to lead South Africa. But first we have to look at Thursday night’s debacle.

Zuma’s speech was disrupted for well over an hour. At one point, it genuinely did seem like the president might never get around delivering his speech, as the Economic Freedom Fighters took up where they had left off last year, heckling and interjecting and bringing the house to a complete halt. For a while, it looked like the EFF’s strategy was different this year. Where in the past the party appeared to be courting violent expulsion from the chamber – by acting disruptively in unison – yesterday individual EFF members interjected at various strategic points. It seemed, at least for a time, that the EFF intended to stay in the chamber the whole night and disrupt him right through.

In the event this didn’t happen, and the EFF chose the heroic spectacle involved in walking out, rather than take Zuma on point by point throughout his speech. Then the presiding officers called on him to return to the podium and continue his address.

What followed was the curious spectacle of the man continuing exactly where he was last interrupted, almost to the exact place he was cut off in mid-sentence. It was as if the previous hour hadn’t happened. No reading the moment, no seizing the opportunity, no rising to the occasion.

The audience is not the EFF’s 25 disruptors nor even the rest of parliament. It is an entire country watching.

The EFF understands this, Zuma does not. He entered the National Assembly beset by crises that would defeat many leaders far more talented than he.

His behaviour over Nkandla had come for a thrashing at the Constitutional Court, his friends and benefactors the Gupta family are currently at the centre of the national conversation over corruption and state capture, the economy is tanking, and the alliance he presides over as president of the African National Congress is slowly but surely unraveling. In the midst of all this, the EFF’s antics looked petty and a bit out of place, the kind of behaviour, in fact, that threatened to let Zuma off the hook for his culpability for the mess we’re in.

When the red overalls finally left the chamber, was the precise moment at which Zuma should have turned to the speaker and offered to speak to the issues that both the EFF and the Congress of the People had walked out over. The Speaker had even cued it up for him, by challenging EFF leaders Julius Malema to “show leadership” to his caucus by defusing the situation and allowing the sitting to continue.

Zuma had the moment made for him. He could have condemned the EFF’s behaviour, challenged them to engage in debate within the set and accepted rules and conventions of parliament, and indicated his own willingness to answer the very serious questions that hang over him and his leadership. And perhaps looked like half a decent president.

Not for Zuma such momentous occasions. Which raises another question. What exactly is a state of the nation speech? Is it, as our government and president seem to think, an annual programme of action that takes us through what the state intends to do in a given year? Is it the report back session that Zuma’s speech became in its latter parts, as he talked us through the “significant progress” made by the state on its 2015 9-point plan to turn the economy around?

Nope. It seems to this writer at least that the above is the kind of thing that could very easily be rolled out in the national budget, and then fleshed out in the various departmental budget votes. The president’s opening address to parliament should concern itself with what its title suggests: the state of the nation. The current state of our nation is one of crisis, panic and despair. It is a state that calls for leadership and direction. And Zuma is not capable.

Higher education is a prime example. Uniquely, it is a mess he cannot be held primarily responsible for, since the chronic underfunding of our universities is a legacy issue that has been worsened through the post-1994 period. But it is a crisis he could seize and use to his advantage, and ours.

He gave higher education no more than two sentences in his speech, and said absolutely nothing new. He could not speak to the anger and frustration of poor black students who came out in their thousands last year and early this year to claim the promise of the Freedom Charter to “open the doors of learning to all”. Instead, he spoke about the already existing “commission” on higher education funding. Missed opportunity number 1001.

On the vexed matter of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Bill, all he could do was merely urge parliament to move faster to pass a law that has now been years in the making, and whose delays are causing massive panic and uncertainty through the mining and energy sectors and the wider economy.

In the final analysis, the ruling party must realise that they are fast approaching the point at which they must ask very tough questions. How long can Zuma continue to fumble and miss every opportunity to help the ANC right its ship? The answer to that question will determine not only the ANC’s immediate future, but perhaps our long-term future too.

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