SONA 2014 - President Jacob Zuma delivering his last State of the Nation Address to a Joint Sitting of the two Houses of Parliament. 13/02/2014, Siyabulela Duda, GCIS

There are many South Africans who would look at their lives today and say that they have a good story to tell, writes Mac Maharaj.

Just a day after being inaugurated as the fourth president of a democratic South Africa, President Jacob Zuma announced an extensive restructuring of government. As he said at the time, the purpose of the new structure was to change the way government worked and make the state more efficient and responsive.

It was also intended to create a government that was caring and that attended to the needs of all South Africans, especially the poor and the working class.

The National Planning Commission was established to develop a national development plan for the country. This plan has been overwhelmingly supported by various stakeholders as the road map towards 2030, and is intended to inform the programme of action for this year and beyond.

The Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation was also established in the Presidency to monitor the performance of government across the three spheres.

Zuma also introduced something new as part of the performance monitoring and evaluation function: he signed performance contracts with all members of his cabinet that clearly outlined what is expected from each minister.

The president meets with each minister, accompanied by the deputy minister and director-general, periodically to assess progress on their performance agreements and to identify areas where improvement is needed.

It is an intensive process. The president spends about three hours or more with each minister and delegation, going through each outcome that they are supposed to deliver on, in terms of their agreement.

Other changes in government included splitting the education portfolio into two, namely, with one department focusing on improving the quality of education at primary and secondary school levels, while the other component was given higher education and training.

The results speak for themselves.

The matric pass rate has significantly improved, moving to 78 percent last year.

The quality of the matric passes is also improving. In 2009 only 19.9 percent matriculants who passed qualified for bachelor’s degree studies; that percentage increased to 30.6 percent by last year.

The quality of education at lower levels is also improving. A province such as the Eastern Cape, which has historically faced difficulties in the education sector, has now stabilised, as last year’s provincial results indicated.

The number of schools that are being built is unprecedented.

One new school was opened per week last year in the Eastern Cape, and government has built 370 modern schools to date.

Most of these schools are built in the most remote areas, where the experience of schooling for learners up until now has been sitting either under a tree or a mud structure.

Higher education has also demonstrated good progress. Student enrolments at universities increased by 12 percent.

In 2010 the total number of students registered was 837 779 and this had risen to 953 375 by 2012. Further Education and Training College student enrolments increased by 90 percent from 345 566 in 2010 to 657 690 in 2012.

Two new universities have been established, namely the Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape and University of Mpumalanga, while 12 new FET colleges are to be built.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement has been in the area of health. The South African Institute of Race Relations released a report in 2009, the year of Zuma’s inauguration, that the average life expectancy in the country had fallen from 62 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2007. The same report predicted a further fall to 48 years for men and 51 years for women by 2011. In provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, the average life expectancy was a mere 43 years. It is indeed an outstanding achievement that in less than five years the average life expectancy had increased to at least 60 years by last year.

Professor Salim Karim, a director of an Aids research institute at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, described the increase in life expectancy that has occurred as “nothing short of stunning” and went on to say that “you don’t see those kinds of increases in the real world”.

Like many observers, Karim attributed the outstanding achievement to the expansion of the ARV treatment programme.

This record of achievement is not only limited to education and health. New dams to provide clean water to people have been built; there are new roads; new power stations to provide light to people who have only lived in darkness – all coming about as part of the massive infrastructure roll-out programme led by the president through the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission.

In addition, to alleviate poverty, 16 million people, especially children, have been provided with social grants without which they would live in utter poverty and hunger.

These changes are a true measure of progress.

The meaning of this progress to ordinary South Africans was brought home recently when Zuma visited a rural village of Mvezo, Madiba’s birthplace, to open a state of the art science and technology school.

Separating Mvezo and the N2 road to Idutywa, which is the nearest town where rural villagers get access to government and other services, is Mbashe River. For a long time villagers, young and old, had to strip naked in order to cross the river.

They had pleaded with government to build them a bridge so that mothers and fathers can travel to Idutywa without having to compromise their dignity in front of their children. Upon hearing this, the Zuma administration built them a bridge, which the villagers named after former President Nelson Mandela.

One elderly woman travelled a distance to meet the president during that launch last month so that she could express her gratitude in person.

To her, the building of the bridge gave meaning to a section in our constitution which promises that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”.

There are many South Africans who, like that mama from Mvezo, would look at their lives today and see a measure of progress that they may not have thought possible five years ago, when Zuma became president.

They will boldly say that they have a good story to tell, and that South Africa is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994.

* Mac Maharaj is the spokesman of President Jacob Zuma.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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