The National Assembly. File photo: Siyabulela Duda

It is difficult to pick my greatest disappointment with Thursday’s State of the Nation address delivered by President Jacob Zuma.

Was it the lack of specificity about changes in the mining sector tax regime? Or was it the lack of clarity about how the National Development Plan will be championed within the state, where it might be hamstrung by political turf-wars between directors-general?

It is tempting to just settle for my standing disappointment in the president’s inability to deliver compelling speeches that can make us feel like we are the greatest nation on earth. But, you know, he had flu, and of course he is, cough, an amazingly gifted orator in his native Zulu. Allegedly.

Over the past few days I realised that there is a central theme that runs throughout the speech’s various weaknesses.

The president is scared of being unpopular. He does not want to spend his political capital, which is in pretty decent shape at the moment, to do the right thing. And that’s because he likes being liked rather than liking being presidential. Sadly.

The best example from the speech is the way the president is handling the debate on whether teaching should be declared an essential service.

For weeks now there has been an important and unhelpful ambiguity about the way in which the ANC uses the word “essential”.

It might mean, as it does in law, that a particular service is a matter of life and death and that those who provide that service must have their right to strike limited in the interest of society.

Or it might mean that a service is really important, but without any legal consequences flowing from the observation that it is important. So which meaning is the ANC trying to punt? The legal definition or the non-legal definition?

Everyone assumed, of course, that Zuma means business when he said he is willing to take on the teachers’ unions.

He was very clear at Mangaung, for example, that he wanted to bring back school inspectors. And so when he started advocating the idea that education is essential, we all assumed he meant the legal concept. We were wrong.

The State of the Nation address made it clear that he is not, after all, willing to be unpopular. He explicitly stated that he does not mean to imply that teachers’ right to strike should be limited.

In other words, he thinks teaching is essential… but not really. This was a huge win for both Cosatu and the SACP, who oppose the idea of declaring teaching an essential service in law.

In his address, Zuma conceded defeat on this crucial issue before the subcommittee on education and health within the ANC had even fully debated the matter.

Here’s the moral of this climbdown from Zuma. It demonstrates a lack of will or lack of ability – or both – to spend your political capital. Political capital refers to the power a politician has to manoeuvre within the body politic.

When vulnerable, like Mbeki was at Polokwane, you have less political capital to spend thank you would like, and deal-making becomes crucial to your stay in the political game.

The same applied to Zuma. He promised a macro-economic policy lurch to the left in order to cement his support among the communists and the trade unions. Never mind the fact that this did not happen.

In that kind of environment, compromises are inevitable, and the leadership can be forgiven for punting complicated policy mixes.

After Mangaung, however, there is greater unity behind the ANC president. The acrimony of Polokwane was not repeated, as many had predicted. And so Zuma can afford to make some unpopular decisions and build a legacy for himself.

The most obvious low-hanging fruit to pick is education.

You will have the entire country behind you as you fight for our children’s right to education. This means taking the fight to the unions by immediately setting about to bring back inspectors, teachers’ training colleges and legally binding performance contracts for educators, and declaring teaching an essential service if you deem it crucial to the health of the country, as you have claimed.

Sadly, Zuma missed an opportunity to be presidential and to start building a positive legacy. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told me last year that he was scared when he won a second term.

He was scared because he knew, he said, that a second term is useful only if you will improve on the first term. He knew that he would be under pressure to perform even better.

The question has to be asked of Zuma: “Are you scared of a second term, Sir?” I fear the answer is “no”.

It is not obvious that Zuma appreciates the burden of a second term in office.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the author of the bestselling A Bantu in My Bathroom. He hosts Talk At Nine on Talk Radio 702. Follow him on Twitter @eusebius

The Star