State of the Nation 2012: As good as it gets

By Stephen Grootes 10 February 2012

We are not inspired. We didn't expect to be. But we are pleased. You see, for so long we've spent early February getting promise after promise, we've become inured to them. This time, though, is slightly different. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There are promises, but they are in the real world. In some State of the Nation addresses, we’ve been hearing about a Keats-ian society, in others we’ve been hearing, um, static. On Thursday night we heard a speech that was, generally, pretty rooted in our actual everyday South African situation. Oh, there were some liberties, but it wasn’t an airy-fairy speech.

Zuma has learnt something that’s key to governance. It’s that when you are in power, you have to be very careful with what you promise. You can tell each room what they want to hear only for so long before it catches up with you. And if you over-generalise, you end up saying nothing. So, as a tactic, you can be quite specific on some projects, but keep them low-scale. And keep them local as well – people love places like Bekkersdal being spoken about in our grand new Parliament.

Ten years from now, this speech, if people remember it at all, could be famous as the moment when our infrastructure stopped getting worse. We are blessed fabulously as a country with wonderful mineral wealth, gold, platinum and more coal than Brian Dames could possibly use. And we can get it out of the ground too, even if it is 4km down. But we can’t get it to the ports. How maddeningly frustrating is that! And how much damage is that simple fact doing to our economy, our taxes, our future generations?

Money is being spent on parts of the country that don’t get a lot of it. The Waterberg and Steelpoort in Limpopo are getting big plans to integrate rail, road and water infrastructure. Zuma wants to “unlock the enormous mineral belt of coal, platinum, palladium” etc. It’s not rocket science this, but it’s a good plan. And Limpopo is a place with large numbers of unemployed youth. This could change the face of the province entirely.

But that’s not all. Transnet wants to spend R300-billion in capital projects. You could build a power station with that amount of cash. Part of this is improvements to the Durban-Gauteng rail corridor, and then a new development to a “manganese export channel” through to Port Elizabeth.

You don’t need to be an economist to know this does several things. Firstly, we can’t afford to leave the situation as it is now. Secondly, infrastructure-build programmes like this have the happy side effect of creating jobs. And thirdly, you start a virtuous cycle, you employ people to do something worth doing, they get money in their pockets (and spend it!) and you get a way of doing business more cheaply. Everyone benefits.

One question. Has this been costed? (Sorry, we’re cynical.) Both trade and industry minister Rob Davies and finance minister Pravin Gordhan seemed to indicate it has. Of course, projects like these never stay within their original estimates, but that’s fine. And it’s hard to toll a “manganese export corridor”, so we’re optimistic it will be paid for in some other way.

While we’re here, Zuma also says they’re going to reduce port charges. They’ve been a scandal for ages; by some measures Durban is the world’s most expensive port. And let’s not kid, it’s not the most efficient. Exporters of manufactured goods will get a decrease in charges worth around a billion rand a year. Good. That is excellent news.

Something else we liked was the comment – just a sentence mind you – about mines. Nope, he didn’t mention the N-word. The sentence as a whole is worth quoting: “We remain committed to the creation of a favourable and globally competitive mining sector, and to promote the industry to attract investment and achieve both industrial growth and much-needed transformation”. Vintage JZ. Nothing offensive to anyone.

Now, imagine you’re the weekend editor of the Financial Times, you phone your man in Joburg and ask him whether the ANC likes international investors in mining or not. And the man in Joburg watched this speech, but was also at Gwede Mantashe’s little outburst on Monday. Remember the statement that he doesn’t like being “blackmailed” into not talking about certain issues because of international investors? The FT’s weekend editor is unlikely to get a one-word answer to his question. That said, we’re glad Zuma made the point at least. It’s better than saying nothing.

Zuma’s inner populist showed itself a little with his request that Eskom keep its prices down as much as possible over the next few years. CEO Dames has publicly said the utility still doesn’t recover its costs, and that’s hard to do. It’s something a president can ask, but may not receive. You can’t beat hard physics and economics working in tandem; they both revolve around real numbers.

The president seemed to be spinning very hard indeed when he said the national intervention team in the Eastern Cape and education officials were “working well” together. That simply doesn’t seem to be the case. Just at the start of the school year, our good friends at Sadtu went on strike again. That’s just after the holidays, hey!

Our other factual quibble, if we may Mr President, Sir, is with the claim, right at the start of the speech, that “it is beginning to look possible” to drive back unemployment and reduce inequality and poverty. Based on what? One set of labour force survey numbers that handily came out this week, showing unemployment is down from 25% to 23%? Hmmm. We’re not convinced. The cynics were already asking on Twitter on Thursday evening if those were just temporary jobs created by last year’s census. While that’s one for the number crunchers among us, the overall sentiment is not widely shared. We just don’t see how real progress has been made in fighting these problems, because we don’t have firm policies in so many of the crucial areas. It’s as simple as that.

But, of course, this is an election year. And you could argue, if you were a kindly soul, that the president has a duty to at least give people hope.

It’s a mark of how our country has changed that the two issues of crime and Aids can now get just passing mentions, and that that is appropriate. Zuma touched on both, said we’ve made lots of progress, we mustn’t get complacent, and moved on. Quite right too. On those two issues, he deserves a lot of credit.

This was a much more cohesive speech, it’s not all things to all women. It’s not overly ambitious. That’s good for the nation. It’s also good politics. Zuma is avoiding setting goals that he will be measured for that can’t be achieved. So instead of claiming “we’ll beat unemployment”, he’s sorting out the actual stuff that’s holding job creation back. And he’s setting goals that are easily measurable. Much of this is long-term stuff. The kind of thing one only benefits from deep into your second term. If, just say, you had a party conference soon, it’s a programme of work that needs to be continued. And you know just the person to continue with it: the person who started it.

Somehow this is a much more mature speech. It’s workmanlike, getting down to it. It’s a sign of better politics. Zuma took trouble to mention people from almost every stripe of the anti-apartheid movement – it’s a little thing that people love. And yes, his presentation was much better. It was the best State of the Nation he’s given. He started well, and that means he ended well. It was a speech he felt comfortable with, always a sign of practice. It wasn’t Barack Obama, but it was never going to be. We’re not inspired, or hugely impressed by Thursday evening. We are pleased. But then again, we did have low expectations. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town February 9, 2012. Zuma on Thursday promised to keep the country’s powerful mining sector “globally competitive”, the latest comment from a senior government official to knock down the prospects of nationalising the mines. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.


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