State of the Nation 2014 debate: ‘A good story’ vs. ‘A dreadful story’
The ANC has introduced a new catchphrase into political parlance: “We have a good story to tell”. It began at the ANC’s manifesto launch in January and echoed through President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address last week to flag the ANC’s record of achievements. It was also the thread running through Tuesday's debate on the State of the Nation address, but upended by the opposition to hammer the ANC for its failures. The evidence was piled on both sides of the House on Tuesday to support the ANC’s version of a good story or to argue why South Africa was heading for catastrophe. Somewhere in the middle is South Africa’s real story. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The last time there was a meme that ran through a Parliamentary debate was when the South African Constitution was adopted in 1996. Thabo Mbeki, at the time Deputy President, delivered his unforgettable "I am an African” speech, which enraptured the House and the nation. President Nelson Mandela sat at the front bench on Mbeki’s right listening in delight, his hand cupping his face and a smile playing on his lips.
The political party leaders who spoke after Mbeki, starting with National Party leader FW De Klerk, spontaneously began their speeches by saying “I am an African”. At the end, the South African Constitution was adopted and the pillars of democracy were cemented with the supreme law of the land firmly in place. It was cherished, beautiful moment in South Africa’s history, and the mood of co-operation between political parties lent to the dignity of the occasion.
Skip ahead 18 years to this year’s debate on the State of the Nation address and it is evident that the state of politics today is a distant place from that moment in 1996. Although the country at that time was still in the process of shedding the yoke of Apartheid, and there were deep divisions between parties, there was a level of collaboration that day about the South African story that was to be written.
The story that unfolded changed South Africa in ways that could never have been imagined. The walls of racial segregation collapsed in all spheres of society as transformation extended into workplaces, schools, residential areas, religious organisations, sport and places of entertainment. South Africa normalised after decades of statutory discrimination and took its rightful place in the world.
But while the façade changed, poverty levels deepened, the crisis of unemployment took hold, crime levels soared and disease crippled families and communities.
These two realities feed into the versions of South Africa’s story today. In an election year, when the state of the nation is being debated in Parliament, the rhetoric is hyped, the accusations fly thick and fast and truth is difficult to determine.
On Tuesday, the ANC speakers reeled off a steady flow of achievements of government since 1994 to keep the “good story” refrain going. But they also went on the counter attack against the opposition, beginning with Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.
“As the president has said, we have a good story to tell. This is in contrast to the official opposition parties that want to pull stunts like marching on the ANC’s offices or try to enhance their leadership cliques with dodgy rent-a-black schemes,” Nzimande said, referring to the Democratic Alliance’s failed attempt to recruit Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele.
“The DA leadership clique even tries to appoint a candidate for the presidency of South Africa without consulting their own members. And they want the voters to trust them to run an open, democratic government. These are the kind of things done by parties that don’t have much of a story to tell and are looking for cheap attention-grabbing tricks. It is also desperation as the DA’s own internal research points to a serious electoral drubbing this time around,” Nzimande claimed.
DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko came out blasting the ANC’s good story claim. She said while the country was “bursting with potential”, the story of President Zuma and his ANC had “reversed much of the progress we have made as a nation”. “It is a story of a Presidency that lacks both the political will and the credibility to do what it is needed to keep South Africa on the path of our predecessors,” Mazibuko said.
“Does the president feel the helplessness of the young man amongst the seven million who have been robbed of their dignity by unemployment? The man who comes home empty handed; who feels like a disappointment to his family and his children? Unemployment is not just a statistic; it is a cold, hard reality,” she said, adding that there were 1.4 million more unemployed South Africans now than when Zuma took office in 2009. The Zuma administration had only managed to create 561,000 out of the five million jobs he promised 2009, Mazibuko said.
Economic growth and job creation require visionary leadership and a single economic plan but South Africa had neither of these, she said. “The Honourable President told the nation repeatedly that the National Development Plan (NDP) is the blueprint that will guide all government policy; but then claimed that the NDP “incorporates key targets of the Industrial Policy Action Plan, the New Growth Path and [the] Infrastructure Plan.
“This kind of vague leadership provides no incentive for investors. How can the Honourable President commit to all three of these plans, when they are totally at odds with one another?” Mazibuko asked.
The security upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla residence was an obvious target for the opposition to illustrate the corruption and excesses of the ANC government. Mazibuko warned that she would table a motion to impeach the president should he be implicated in any wrongdoing in the Public Protector’s report on the Nkandla upgrades.
Mazibuko said she had also tabled a written motion calling for Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi to be investigated for deliberately misleading the House by claiming the government task team report on Nkandla contained sensitive security information. She said Nxesi had now disclosed in court papers that the report had in fact not contained any such sensitive information and it was therefore falsely classified as “Top Secret” in order to conceal information to protect the president from embarrassment.
Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi was equally scathing, saying the ANC had been “hideously transformed”. “Twenty years ago, words like ‘rainbow nation’, ‘miracle transition’, ‘freedom’ and ‘reconciliation’ filled the public discourse. Under your leadership, Mr President, those words have become ‘Marikana’, ‘scandal’, ‘protest’ and ‘corruption’.
“Under your watch, the ANC has become a caricature of its former self, almost unrecognisable as the old liberation movement that helped usher in democracy. Under your watch, Mr President, dignity has shuffled off the stage of politics, following the quiet exit of integrity,” Buthelezi said.
He also called out Zuma’s explanation for the upsurge of service delivery protests being the result of government’s successes and consequent rising expectations. “No, Mr President, promises raise expectations. And when promises are broken, people protest. These are your own people, members of the ANC, who are engaging in violent protest against their government. It is not a case of playing politics,” Buthelezi said.
The 85-year-old leader rounded off his speech saying: “The time has come for an amputation, so that our country can move forward without the dead weight of a leadership that no longer leads with integrity.”
Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota said little to address anything Zuma spoke of in the State of the Nation address but instead used the debate to hold a candle up for Mbeki. He said the “good story” ended when Mbeki was recalled.
“South Africa today is less happier than when President Mbeki was kicked out of office. Back then, we didn’t owe anybody, but now we are a trillion rand in debt,” Lekota said. “Is it any wonder that township after township in the provinces you govern are going up in flames?”
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa also moved to counter the “good story” narrative. He said “the most painful irony” was that a former liberation movement that espoused egalitarian principles during the struggle years now presided over “the most grotesque and ever-worsening levels of inequality”.
“Government has over the past 20 years taken decisions that have caused the country much embarrassment. Some of these decisions and transactions, which were laced with corruption include, but are not limited to, Sarafina II, the Arms Deal, Hitachi/Chancellor House/Eskom deal, the Dina Pule saga, the IEC and the South African Police Services’ lease agreement scandals, Nkandlagate scandal and so on.”
Addressing Zuma directly, Holomisa said while the president kept saying he had no knowledge of the Nkandla upgrades, “you never tell us what steps you have taken to solve this fiasco”.
Zuma sat stony-faced for most of the debate, occasionally taking notes, as he continued to be pelted by the opposition. The debate continues on Wednesday when the good story versus the dreadful story argument will no doubt continue.
South Africans, particularly the 25 million who will be able to vote on 7 May, know their own story, and on that basis will decide where to put their cross. South Africa’s story in 2014 is at an intersection, and the power of the vote will decide in which direction the next chapter heads.
But what is clear is that moment when South Africans celebrated our Constitution, when Mbeki said, “Today it feels good to be an African”, is a rather distant memory. DM
Watch: Thabo Mbeki “I am an African”
Photos by Reuters.