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26 June 2016 21:06 (South Africa)
South Africa

The next State of the Nation Address: A fable

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa
Photo: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma responds to questions on his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town February 19, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

As the time for the annual State of the Nation Address draws near, J BROOKS SPECTOR wonders what it would sound like if the President chose to move beyond the usual dry litany of numbers and programs and sought to inspire the nation to move beyond business as usual.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more….”

- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven”

While the writer was up late one recent evening, contemplating an effort to unravel ancient mysteries and half-forgotten lore that might help explain Donald Trump’s astonishing appeal to a significant portion of the American electorate, I received an urgent message from the Office of the Presidency (the local one) requesting I submit a draft of what I would want to have President Zuma say in his upcoming State of the Nation speech. Such opportunities to influence the national dialogue come along rather rarely, and so I set to work with vengeance, totally ignoring even that annoying raven that was persistently rapping and tapping at the window. And this is what we ended up with for the man to deliver:

My fellow citizens of South Africa and honoured guests, and all my fellow countrymen and women watching and listening to me in their homes across our amazing nation, a good evening to you all. Today I stand before you yet one more time in the chamber of the National Assembly to deliver an annual report card about the state of our nation. This time around, rather than the usual long (and sometimes boring) roster of programs and plans and all the usual greetings and salutations, I want to skip all those usual formalities and all that lofty, artificial language because those are the kinds of thing that put distance between us - rather than helping bring us together for this conversation.

Instead, I want to use this occasion that we share in order to speak to you right from my heart. In the days and weeks ahead, there will be more than enough time to spell out in great detail all of the specifics of our initiatives that others will need in order to do their work on behalf of the nation. But tonight is a time for some straight, honest talk.

I wish to speak with you this way because we are all part of a national conversation about South Africa’s successes, as well as its problems and about the challenges that continue to confront our nation. And so we must begin to speak frankly about what we must do together in order to make a real start in confronting our many challenges. But we also must understand that we are not going to get everything right in a year, or even, perhaps, in a decade. Nevertheless, we must begin – right here and right now. Starting tonight. Yes, we do have a good story to tell the world, but we must up our game and be able to tell an even better one in the future.

It can be no secret our economy is undergoing some hard challenges - and that we have been struggling in the face of some difficult international conditions. Too many people have found their jobs have deserted them and, for many people, pay packets are increasingly being tested. Yes, South Africa continues to face the stubborn, persistent legacy of our colonial and apartheid past. Moreover, our land has been punished by challenging international conditions that include a real decline in the demand for our major exports, as well as the prices we gain for many of these products.

But we must also be honest among ourselves and admit we did not make the very best advantage of what economists describe as the long commodity cycle for products like our iron ore, our platinum, our coal and all the other minerals we dig out of the earth with the sweat of our labour. In simple terms, what that means is that when nations like China were rapidly growing their economies, we did not gain maximum advantage because of those eager customers, even as they were eager for what we had to sell, and they were eager for as much of it as we could send to them. Our transportation system was overburdened, our productivity was too low, and our businesses were simply not forward-thinking enough to sign up demand for our products over the long haul. We must admit it; we did not plan as well as we should have done. And now we have to deal honestly with the consequences and fix things. Now that this commodity cycle is in retreat around the globe, we must try new ideas to gain new ground for our economy. This time we must find markets for things we already produce in our factories and workshops, or with new products which we can make and sell abroad to new customers.

Now, in my travels around the country and in my meetings with my fellow citizens, I sometimes hear people argue we should now concentrate on making and selling things among ourselves - and that we should not sell our rich mineral heritage to others for low returns. We must close the doors to imports from the rest of the world. But the truth of the matter is that we must compete internationally with the best we have, in new and smart ways, because we must earn the foreign exchange – money where we are paid in pounds, dollars, euros, yen or yuan. We need this foreign exchange to allow us to buy the many things our own growing nation needs and wants. We simply cannot make everything at a cost any of us could afford to pay – or should we have to. To realize that is to grasp a basic understanding of the world’s economy we all live in nowadays – and this is true whether one lives in a small homestead near Lusikisiki or one of our bustling big cities.

And so we must begin to find our way to a new path for a productive economy where we think smart - and produce even smarter. We need to find ways to encourage our mills and factories to make things – and not just rely on sending shiploads of mineral ores that people around the world want to own. We must focus our efforts on innovation hubs, public-private partnerships, and many other new ways of bringing the best to bear on our economic future. To make this happen, I have asked Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to lead the march on this, in addition to all his other weighty responsibilities for the nation, because I know first-hand just how effectively he has been as an innovator in business and how strongly he feels about the importance of this task. But, of course, this cannot just be a job for Comrade Cyril. We all must also do the hard thinking and the discovering of new pathways to nurture industries that do not simply involve making everyday objects or digging deep into the ground with our picks and shovels and our drills and hammers.

Yes, I’m thinking here of our unparalleled travel and tourism industries. But I am also thinking about how we must seize with both hands the world of information technology to enter the future of the global economy. With the first, we must find ways to fully concentrate the energies of government and business, harnessed together, in order for many more tourists from the entire world come visit us. They should find us so exciting that they stay as long as they can. They must have unique experiences they cannot find anywhere else. And then, when they return to their homes, they can tell their friends and families to come visit us as well. And yes, we need to rethink all of our visa processes - in line with safety and security - so that a visitor anywhere in the world feels like they are being eagerly welcomed by us with our legendary hospitality – even before they arrive on our shores.

But the same must be true for our engagement with information and information technology. Unlike many parts of the world, we have a real advantage – what the economists call a “competitive advantage” because so many of our citizens already speak English – the language that is already the lingua franca of the globe’s IT industry. This is the area where so many of the new jobs in the future will come from and so we must eagerly discover how we can best seize new opportunities there. There is no question about how important this sector will become in the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit.

I must tell you, speaking personally, that I understand just how important this challenge is for us. When I was growing up, as most of you know, I only had the opportunity for a few short years of formal schooling. That is just how things were in those days before our liberation. In the years that followed, I schooled myself in many ways on many topics – and I received guidance and instruction from my elders and mentors in our liberation movement. But, as you may have noticed, sometimes, I occasionally fumble over some of those really big numbers we use when we describe government budgets and national programs that deliver new infrastructure projects for our citizens. [PAUSE FOR LAUGHTER]

Sadly, what they call the IT world is another matter entirely for me. I admit that I have sometimes asked one of my children to help me set up a fancy new cell phone or whenever I have to make the DVD player work properly in our lounge. And, of course, computers still can remain something of a mystery to me. I’m sure those of you close to me in age will have sympathy for me. But as a nation, we need to make sure potential employers around the world understand that here in South Africa, we have a labour force eager to roll up its sleeves to work for good employers, the kinds of employers who are going to be here with us for the future, and who will be with us for the long haul as well build our nation. And that means our educational system across the nation, from grade R to our universities, must also be up to the challenges of the information age. I have been told that in the future, many young people will enter jobs that we have not yet heard of, let alone arranged for the training needed for them. We need an educational system that can respond to such unprecedented challenges.

All. Let me repeat that. All of our schools must have the full set of tools; the computers, the laboratories, the libraries, the Internet connections and the textbooks needed to train our future citizens. This is over and above the most basic and necessary things like desks, chairs, running water and sanitation that make school attendance possible. All of our teachers must be as well educated as we can make them. Our national effort must now concentrate on making high quality education as accessible as possible for everyone in our nation – as efficiently as possible.

No child should be sidelined from education because their family has modest means. This must become one of highest priorities for us as a government as well as for everyone in our nation. We must all understand that a highly skilled, well-educated population is crucial for the future of our economy. This is a lesson I have gained – with my own eyes – in all of my travels through East Asia and many other nations around the world. But we must bend our energies to this task now. There is no longer any excuse.

I want to return for a minute to the economic challenges of our nation. Like all of us, I have heard of the concerns foreign investors, those international rating agencies, and the various international financial organisations have expressed about our economic progress. And so here we need to do all the hard things we have spoken about earlier, as well as managing the nation’s treasury as if it were the precious savings of a family hoping to finally have the chance to own their own home or to buy their first automobile. But beyond those big, bold things we often speak about, we must carry out the kinds of symbolic actions that send a clear message across the land and throughout the world that we really mean business.

As a result, in the next month, my office will issue new governmental regulations to rein in expenditures on fancy cars and extravagant entertaining, excessive international travel by officials and their staffs, and all manner of similar expenses. These are the kinds of things that can easily make a mockery of our best intentions in the eyes of the world. When we were in our liberation struggle, we made do with simple things, and now it is truly the time to revive that same spirit of sacrifice and to imbue all of our colleagues in all levels of government with that feeling – including those in the many state owned enterprises that provide crucial services to our citizens.

To set an example for careful public expenditure, even though there is no requirement that I do so, I am prepared, here and now, to offer to repay a reasonable portion of the expenses incurred in improving my personal property that were unrelated to the legitimate requirements of security. Accordingly, I will ask my staff to work with the appropriate authorities to reach a reasonable settlement on these expenses. I want to put an end to the unseemly bickering that has for too long engaged our political sphere and to allow us, instead, to turn our collective attention to things that really matter.

In the foreign affairs arena, as part of our focus on restoring our economy to full health, we will continue to build our relations with our BRICS partners - even as we search out new opportunities in other important markets for our products. We want to serve as a model for nations everywhere in building relationships on the ties that matter – in our home continent as well as around the world. All of our embassies and foreign missions will understand that their primary task is supporting trade and foreign investment in our nation and that everything they do must be justified in those terms. It must be every shoulder to this wheel.

Finally, I want to turn my attention to a theme that has become a constant topic in our newspapers, on our television and radio programs, and among our many conversations in markets, at the bus and taxi ranks, and in our offices and at many other places where we gather. And that, of course, is the continuing cancer of racism in our society. I firmly believe South Africans are, by and large, good people who believe in a fair, just and non-racial, non-sexist society. But we must all begin to engage in self-examination on this problem and we must pledge to root out the attitudes – and behaviours – that are the poisonous inheritance from our contentious past. I must make it clear racism is a problem that cannot be solved by government decree alone. Instead, our spiritual guides, our teachers, our cultural and sports figures, our traditional leadership, all of our leaders must take this problem in hand and help excise this cancer from our spirits. I know that we cannot change the thoughts some people – especially those mired in the past - but we must make it our sacred national task to ensure racism no longer has a place in our conversations or in our behaviour. Everyone must be a fighter on this front. Our forebears struggled to end legalised segregation and inequality and it would be unforgivable for us to falter now in the task that still remains.

Moreover, I call upon all of the leaders across the entire range of our nation’s politics to join with me in improving the quality of our political rhetoric, rather than in cheapening it further. As we look forward to our next set of elections a few months from now, we must all debate the issues – vigorously, enthusiastically, and with great spirit – but we must not lower ourselves with language that embarrasses us all. Our fellow citizens deserve no less.

Looking forward, I promise that our legislative agenda – a plan you will all hear about with increasing detail in the weeks ahead – will address the themes I have spoken about tonight, as well as so many other important issues, such as the increasingly urgent need to reach an equitable sharing of the land and resources of this land of ours. But, in the final analysis, it is for all of us who live in our land to set ourselves to the task of making a prosperous nation in which we can all be proud to be partners in its creation. We want a nation where everyone has a chance to thrive - and for us to build a land where our children will remember us with gratitude and thanks for what we chose to do for them.

I thank you for your time and attention and I hope that what I have spoken about tonight encourages everyone to think about how best to achieve a society we can all enjoy. Good night and God’s blessings upon you all. (APPLAUSE FROM ALL SIDES OF THE PARLIAMENT)

But then the writer awoke. ‘Twas just a dream. DM

Photo: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma responds to questions on his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town February 19, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa

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