The first take on Zuma’s State of the Nation address: Not bad, not bad at all

By Branko Brkic 11 February 2010

President Jacob Zuma had promised to give what seemed to be a fairly realistic State of the Nation address. What we heard was a speech with not much earth-shattering stuff, but it somehow worked – strangely enough.

Zuma was in a tough spot. It would have been easy to launch a headline-grabbing initiative and move the agenda on. He didn’t do that. What he did was produce a speech that addressed some of the very real problems the nation faces. Some of it is very workable. We applaud his measure to give tax incentives to businesses hiring younger people. Basically, he’s going to help the youth over the “just qualified, no experience” problem.

On the economy, his summation was bang on. There’s reason for hope, the economy is now creating jobs. But don’t think it’s all over, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Interestingly, there was no mention of economic policy or inflation targeting in the 12-page speech. But he did hint at something with “government will, therefore, not withdraw its support measures”. That should put to bed any ideas that the Reserve Bank will reverse its rate cuts which were instituted to deal with the recession.

Public infrastructure received a big boost, with R846 billion. Most of this will go to Eskom, but the rest will be spent on “maintaining and expanding our road network”. (Note the word “maintain”.) That’s going go down very well with a middle class, irritated at the pothole problem.

He also promised rail transport would be reliable, competitive and better integrated with our sea ports. Good idea, tricky to do though. We don’t even have a CEO at Transnet and no prospect of one for some time to come.

There wasn’t much new on the power problem, but he did say the inter-ministerial committee on energy will “look at the participation of independent power producers”. Excellent. We are seriously pleased with that. Hopefully, it will actually be followed by reality. However, much of the load still rests on Eskom. He also formally announced the establishment of an independent system operator that will basically decide when to use Eskom electricity and power from independent people. Hurrah! But do it.

Government evaluation was always going to be one of the big issues of this speech. Ministers will have to sign a delivery agreement before starting any project. We think that’s good; it will mean more thought going into policy. But we still can’t see Zuma sacking a politically popular minister just because he or she is incompetent.

Zuma stuck to the basics on education: Teachers must be on time, and teach for seven hours a day. There will also be independent testing of pupils in grades three, six and nine. Best of all, parents will get to see those results. And school inspectors are back; all of the country’s 27,000 schools will be visited by the department.

The National Health Insurance Scheme received the briefest of brief mentions, “We will also continue preparations for the establishment of a national health insurance system”. Conspicuously absent was any time table. It’s a step back from his comments at the ANC rally earlier this year when he pointed out it will be done this year. However, as president, he does have to soft-pedal a bit. Still, we can’t but wonder if this idea is slowly on its way out.

Crime had lots of play, a longish paragraph, but not much is new there either. He confined himself to calling on people to help out, to tell police about criminals and not to buy stolen goods.

Local government got the promised crapping out, as did those who use violence. No new policy was announced, but his governance minister has a job on his hands. Zuma did tell the police to take “tougher action” on lawlessness in Balfour and its surroundings.

A small paragraph, but with perhaps big consequences, caught our eye. Zuma wants to provide proper land tenure to half-a-million households by 2014. That should mean there will be another half-a-million home owners in the next four years. That’s a great idea, it should give all of those people something to fight for, and thus they’ll be more productive members of society. We’ve all read the economic research on what home ownership can do for a nation. We fervently hope and pray it happens.

Zuma made a promise made twice before by Mbeki. Cheaper broadband. He said there will be a “further reduction” in broadband, cellphone, landline and public phone rates. He also wants faster broadband. As a website that lives and dies on this, of course, we welcome it. But the same hurdles are still there – Telkom, cellphone companies that are really a triopoly and weak regulatory bodies. It’s simply not going to happen unless the Independent Communications Authority (Icasa) is beefed up. It simply can’t continue advertising for a senior legal advisor with a salary of R500,000 a year. It needs more money, stronger councillors and more intellectual rigour. He must provide it with such for any of this to happen.

And he told the nation how much he appreciated the role of whites and other minorities in overcoming apartheid and the role they play in the nation now. He started and ended his speech with calls for more racial reconciliation; he truly is a great reconciler. His tone was welcoming to all South Africans; he just gets it on the race issue. He knows that everyone needs to feel part of this nation, no matter how they look. He’s right to echo Madiba’s call on this, and we’re confident that he will continue to do so. He can bring the warm, fuzzy feelings to a speech.

Our initial take on the speech: Zuma did pretty well. He included much of what we said we wanted. We’re glad there’s some movement on electricity and health. We think that, while changes to economic policy are in the offing, it’s probably going to be better received by business if it comes from Uncle Pravin (we realise this is slightly unfair, but then, this is politics). We are also pleased that several worrying ideas have been left out, with the NHI wind of change seemingly slowing down, for example.

A final note. When Zuma walked in, the chamber rose. Everybody (even most of the press box) clapped. But it was restrained. During those heady days when Zuma still had an enemy to defeat, when Mbeki was still the main man, the applause for Zuma was unrestrained. It was jubilation. MPs sang “Umshimi wami” spontaneously (well, it seemed spontaneous). There was none of that this time. It was almost subdued.

Have the events of the last few days damaged him under the water line? Probably not. But they may have showed his supporters, for the first time, that Zuma doesn’t walk on water.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Read more: The Daily Maverick previous articles on State of the Nation speech here and here.

Photo: President Jacob Zuma arrives for the opening of Parliament with Speaker of the National Assembly Max Sisulu in Cape Town. REUTERS/Nic Bothma



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