South Africa

Mr Zuma goes to Parliament: Soothing and stirring of a restless nation

By Ranjeni Munusamy 13 June 2013

There could have been no better way for President Jacob Zuma to begin a speech than to announce that former president Nelson Mandela was “responding better to treatment” after five days in hospital. But then he had to get down to the serious business of what his presidency was doing to lead the country through troubled economic times. The opposition parties also paused to salute Madiba, and then took the opportunity to rip into Zuma’s leadership. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

What started off as a House in a sombre mood descended into the usual chaos, with the opposition calling on the ANC not to nominate President Jacob Zuma as their presidential candidate to spare the country “any future damage”.

In reaction to the agitation and widely reported expectation that Zuma would visit ailing former statesman Nelson Mandela in hospital earlier this week, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said the president would not be doing so as he was in Cape Town preparing for a speech to Parliament. The occasion was the budget vote of the presidency and all the political heads – Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Ministers Trevor Manuel and Collins Chabane and Deputy Minister Obed Bapela – would be addressing Parliament during the debate.

But the pressure was really on Zuma to deliver a speech that would settle a nation anxious about its beloved founding leader, address the crisis in the economy, show support for the beleaguered National Development Plan (NDP) and inspire confidence in his leadership. After all, this was a debate about whether the presidency was providing value for money for its R1.1 billion budget.

So after providing news that Madiba was from Wednesday morning responding better to the treatment he is receiving at a Pretoria hospital, and honouring deceased heroes of the liberation struggle, Zuma dipped straight into the issue of the troubled economy. He said the presidency would “this year take a hands-on approach, working closely with relevant departments and social partners to boost confidence in the economy”. The Rand had become increasingly vulnerable due to the global financial situation, including a strong US dollar environment, Zuma said.

He said it was not in the interest of the country to have a tense labour relations environment “characterised by a weakening of collective bargaining mechanisms, illegal wildcat strikes, violent protests and loss of life”. Zuma said he had recently asked Motlanthe to lead a ministerial team to help the mining sector normalise the situation. “Work is continuing in this regard, and we remain optimistic that a solution will be found.”

On the NDP, Zuma acknowledged there were “differences of opinion on specific details” but said there was general acceptance of the broad thrust of the plan. With increasing pressure from Cosatu, concerns from the South African Communist Party and now Cabinet rejecting the foreign policy segment, doubt is looming about whether the government’s policy and planning blueprint can get off the ground in any meaningful way. Zuma said people should offer constructive inputs on the plan and “not just debate for the sake of it”.

“We have moved to the implementation phase of the plan, incorporating the economic strategies, the New Growth Path, the Industrial Policy Action Plan and the infrastructure development plan which now fall under the NDP umbrella. To this end, the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation and the National Planning Commission Secretariat in the Presidency are converting the National Development Plan proposals into a Medium Term Strategic Framework.”

Zuma said this framework would inform the work of government for the next five years, and in future all delivery agreements, sector plans, departmental strategic plans as well as provincial and municipal plans would be aligned to the National Development Plan. While Zuma is usually sketchy on detail, this was a firm signal that government would push ahead with the NDP despite the objections.

In a rare attempt to rally a fragmented nation, Zuma said there was a need for continuing investment in social transformation and nation building. “We must promote unity and social cohesion. We must also enhance positive values and build stronger families and communities to strengthen the social fabric of society.” Accelerating the fight against social ills such as drug and substance abuse, as well as gender violence, was part of the effort of nation building, Zuma said.

There was no reference in Zuma’s speech to the various disasters and crises that plagued the presidency in the recent past. For example, even though he mentioned various foreign missions in Africa undertaken by the South African National Defence Force, Zuma sidestepped the doomed deployment to the Central African Republic (CAR) which resulted in the death of 15 soldiers.

For Zuma, the aim of the speech was to show he and his office were paying attention to what was going on in the country, were making strategic interventions and would be more “hands-on” in future.

The opposition, though, was not buying it, and several parties voted against the presidency’s budget.

Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said that over the last year, the government had stumbled from crisis to crisis, and it was “an unavoidable conclusion that President Jacob Zuma’s lack of purpose and direction is at the very heart of the problem”.

“In the life of a nation, rarely has a leader been so personally responsible for setting into motion a chain of crises as this president is. Every major crisis of the last year could have been avoided if the president had exercised principled and selfless leadership.”

Mazibuko said Zuma’s leadership failures had manifested in major crises including the Marikana massacre, the cloak of secrecy around the upgrade to his Nkandla residence, the deaths of the 15 soldiers in CAR and the Gupta family abusing the Waterkloof Air Force Base.

“I appeal directly to the governing party to spare our country any future damage by not allowing President Zuma to contest the 2014 general election. South Africa cannot afford one more lost year. If we are consigned to another six years of failed leadership, South Africa may never recover the lost ground,” Mazibuko said.

Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota called on opposition parties to unite and “revolt” against the executive. He said the absence of leadership was “acutely felt by everyone” and there was “a staggering deficit of accountability in our politics”.

“True followers of Mandela are those willing to be bound by the moral rectitude and intellectual rigour he demonstrated. All others are name-droppers who pretend to be the carriers of his legacy,” Lekota said.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said there should be a parliamentary oversight committee on the presidency. He said although he had called for this to be established in the past, it had not been done, and therefore there was no accounting for the activities of the presidency.

“As long as this not done, there will always be wild stories, real and imagined, about what goes on in the presidency,” Buthelezi said.

Throughout the debate, MPs paid tribute and spoke of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, while wishing him and his family well. Ironically, even through his illness, Madiba remains the one thing that binds South Africa, and even its opposing elected representatives, together. It is the reason that the morsel of news that he is breathing better makes the nation breathe better, if only for a little while. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town February 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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