With malice aforethought
31 August 2014 02:05 (South Africa)
South Africa

State of the Nation Address: Too many ingredients, not enough theme

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
brooks zuma sona.jpg

President Jacob Zuma delivered his State of the Nation Address (Sona) at the opening of the 2013 parliamentary session on a day when his voice was weakened by flu, and much of his intended message was swamped by the arrest of Oscar Pistorius. This latest shocker has come even as the nation has yet to come to grips fully with the horrific rape-murder of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp. As a result, much of the buzz for this annual ritual seemed more than a little dialed down, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In pre-speech commentaries, some analysts had said this speech would be the moment when the president would offer a very strong, very public, very visible, very enthusiastic embrace of the National Development Plan. The NDP, after all, had been convened by his presidency – with its leadership drawn from the upper tiers of the business community and some serious players in business and government like Bobby Godsell, Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa. In the end, however, Jacob Zuma barely mentioned the specifics – and the intellectual core of the NDP. Instead of an analysis of how this – his – plan fits with government programmes and citizen aspirations for that sometimes elusive better life for all, his audience – seated in parliament, watching and listening on television and the radio – were treated to laundry lists of public works projects already completed, in progress, or in the planning stages, as well as a plethora of commissions, task teams and working groups assigned to address national ailments or tasks in the future.

As the core of his argument, Zuma noted there was a need to remove the obstacles that block the threefold growth needed to meet the nation’s economic goals. Fair enough, as far as that goes. But then it was on to the lists rather than an analysis of how the multitude of projects can help achieve that fundamental goal, mutually reinforcing one another, the synergies. Although, in keeping with previous speeches, the president argued that his key priorities remain improving education and health, decreasing crime, providing decent work, and supporting rural development and land reform, most of the speech was in the shape of lists: the construction of a port, a freight terminal, a bridge, the procurement of 11 new locomotives, new electrical power lines, and the occasional green energy project. All of these things are almost certainly worthy efforts, but how they fit together into a complex whole that energises that magical threefold increase in economic output remained unexplained, unexplored, and unstated.

Statements like “We are cracking down on corruption” brought cheers. But it also left a wry recognition of so much left undone in that regard, given the significant numbers of civil servants and their acquisitive fingers who have been caught out by this crackdown – in those lists. Especially with his comments on education, for example – his congratulations on rising matriculation passing rates, then better teachers’ pay to come, but also some new toughness in enforcing academic rigour – it was easy to see the Zuma method at work, offer a pat on the head, then balance every carrot with a stick, cover all the constituencies.

In contrast to Zuma’s speech with its muzzy connections between goals and actual activities, the NDP is a straightforward depiction of the interconnections between human development, education, investments in health, and providing a positive climate for investment.

Or, as it begins, “the National Development Plan is a plan for the country to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030 through uniting South Africans, unleashing the energies of its citizens, growing an inclusive economy, building capabilities, enhancing the capability of the state and leaders working together to solve complex problems.”

Now, that could easily have been the clarion call of president and the opening gambit of Thursday’s speech.

The plan then spells out the urgent national objectives South Africa must reach towards by the year 2030. As it says, South Africa must “reduce the number of people who live in households with a monthly income below R419 per person (in 2009 prices) from 39% to zero.” It must “reduce inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, from 0.69 to 0.6. To make meaningful progress in eliminating poverty and reducing inequality, South Africa needs to write a new story. The National Planning Commission envisions a South Africa where opportunity is determined not by birth, but by ability, education and hard work. Above all, we need to improve the quality of education and ensure that more people are working. We need to make the most of all our people, their goodwill, skills and resources. This will spark a cycle of development that expand opportunities, builds capabilities and raises living standards. We cannot continue with business as usual. We need to change the way we do things; the sooner we do this, the better.” The plan offers a sense of urgency, which was noticeably absent in Zuma’s speech this year.

The plan also calls for the nation to “Establish a competitive base of infrastructure, human resources and regulatory frameworks. Ensure that skilled, technical, professional and managerial posts better reflect the country’s racial, gender and disability makeup. Broaden ownership of assets to historically disadvantaged groups. Increase the quality of education so that all children have at least two years of preschool education and all children in Grade 3 can read and write. Provide affordable access to quality health care while promoting health and wellbeing. Establish effective, safe and affordable public transport. Produce sufficient energy to support industry at competitive prices, ensuring access for poor households, while reducing carbon emissions per unit of power by about one-third.”

In contrast, for example, the president’s speech offered the noticably more flaccid, “In elevating education to its rightful place, we want to see an improvement in the quality of learning and teaching and the management of schools. We want to see an improvement in attitudes, posture and outcomes. Working with educators, parents, the community and various stakeholders, we will be able to turn our schools into centres of excellence.” Or, “Last May I asked constituencies at Nedlac to discuss youth employment incentives. I am pleased that discussions have been concluded and that agreement has been reached on key principles. The parties will sign the accord later this month. The incentives will add to what government is already doing to empower the youth. State owned companies provide apprenticeships and learnerships and we urge that these be increased. We appeal to the private sector to absorb 11,000 FET graduates who are awaiting placements.”

The president eventually turned to the mining industry and labour unrest. Rather than a discussion about how best to make this bedrock of the South African economy thrive in a fiercely competitive global economy, the president offered: “We believe that at a policy level we have managed to bring about certainty in the mining sector. The nationalisation debate was laid to rest in December at the ruling party’s national conference. Ensuring that the public services we provide our people today can continue to be provided to our people tomorrow, requires that we have suitable tax policies to generate sufficient revenue to pay for these services.

“From time to time, we have commissioned studies into our tax policies, to evaluate the extent to which they meet the requirements of the fiscus. Later this year, the minister of finance will be commissioning a study of our current tax policies, to make sure that we have an appropriate revenue base to support public spending. Part of this study, will evaluate the current mining royalties regime, with regard to its ability to suitably serve our people.”

If there was a sense of urgency, here it was less than self-evident in this decision to commission yet another set of studies.
When the president spoke to elements of the social contract, he could argue the country’s constitution “guarantees that ‘everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.’ We therefore call on our people to exercise their rights to protest in a peaceful and orderly manner. It is unacceptable when people’s rights are violated by perpetrators of violent actions, such as actions that lead to injury and death of persons, damage to property and the destruction of valuable public infrastructure. We are duty bound to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic. We will spare no effort in doing so. For this reason, I have instructed the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster to put measures in place, with immediate effect, to ensure that any incidents of violent protest are acted upon, investigated and prosecuted.” However, there was rather less about the concomitant obligation of law and order forces to be mindful of and protective of citizen rights to life. And when he came to a woman’s right not to be subjected to rape or worse, he pointed to the National Council on Gender Based Violence and the return of certain specialised police units.

On the whole, too often, the speech had the sense of having been constructed out of bullet point contributions from two dozen government agencies and departments, rather than being driven by the singleness of one man’s vision and purpose. Inevitably, perhaps, one is reminded of that old Churchill story. It seems the prime minister was eating a meal and as he finished his entrée and was served his sweet, he took a bite of his pudding, and then another, whereupon he growled at the waiter, “Waiter! Remove this pudding at once! It has no theme!” This year’s Sona could have used more theme and fewer ingredients – and the National Development Plan, regardless of any of its own flaws, would have been an excellent place to start the making of it. DM

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  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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