South Africa

Our State of the Nation and the world

By J Brooks Spector 14 February 2014

As President Jacob Zuma delivered the final State of the Nation address of his current term, J. BROOKS SPECTOR was watching this speech and comparing it in his mind with American President Barack Obama's most recent State of the Union speech, delivered a few weeks ago. Aside from all the other ways to compare these two efforts, there was also the point that international affairs issues have clearly taken a back seat in public policy statements like these two speeches.

On 13 February, President Jacob Zuma delivered his final SONA speech of his current term of office – although he’ll almost certainly have more chances to deliver others once his party wins the 7 May election. In apparent response to complaints about excessive bling bling spending by government, the budget for this event is said to have been pared down by two million rand or so. Thus there was no giant, expensive tent for dinner. Rather, a thousand people went off to the Cape Town International Convention Centre for a (presumably) more restrained, more spartan version of the now-traditional celebratory feed – although they obviously didn’t have to get by with box wine and pap and wors.

Purely in visual terms, for this writer, at least, the SONA still seems to suffer from unsightly echoes of that old, stuffy, ceremonial opening of Parliament, back during the Apartheid era, when all the bigwigs traveled at taxpayer expense to Cape Town from Pretoria via the Blue Train, once the lower level civil servants had packed up entire offices for their twice-yearly move. And there also seems to be a bit of a holdover effort to achieve an even further reach backwards to those now-ended British colonial regimens in Africa and Asia – especially those outrageously grandiose assemblies of subject princes and imperial officials, complete with elephants – the durbars – a ceremonial feature of the imperial Raj.

With all the supposed emphasis on austerity budgeting, consistent with tight economic times, surely it is time to dial back a bit more on the multitudes of soldiers on parade, the endless brass bands, and those jet flyovers – as well as those appalling fashions, the funny hats and the obviously uncomfortable shoes that are going into the dumpster as soon as the night is done. South Africa is, after all, a republic, not something like the fictional Grand Duchy of Ruritania.

Some of this stuff makes one remember the general ridicule that ensued in America, back in the late 1960s, when then-President Richard Nixon tried to change the White House guard uniforms to be more in keeping with his view of the importance of his presidency. Except that when the uniforms were publicly unveiled, they looked like something that the imperial Czarist navy would have worn at a royal christening or a coronation. Needless to say, they never were worn. Maybe it is time to give this stuff a rest here in South Africa as well.

As contrast, while the American SOTU speech certainly gets the full pomp and circumstance ceremonial treatment when it happens each year, it essentially only happens inside the US Capitol Building. Effectively, the Americans have turned their SOTU speech into a made-for-television moment – as only a thousand or so people can attend in person anyway. The remaining millions see it in their homes via the TV or online and there is little to watch beyond the events inside the Capitol Building anyway. Now that President Zuma has also turned SONAs into evening television moments as well, maybe now is the time, finally, to strip away one of these last remaining vestiges of the old regime, including all the flamboyant excesses that have now, increasingly, come to be associated with this annual national review of governmental progress.

Although there were obviously many real differences between the two nations’ handling – and the content – of the respective presidential speeches, it is important to note that in both cases, the two presidents dedicated very little time on international relations. In this year’s version of “the speech” over in Washington, for example, anything resembling a discussion of foreign affairs only came up on page nine of a twelve-page speech.

The vast bulk of Obama’s address focused on something approaching the American equivalent of service delivery, along with infrastructure building, restoring economic growth, reforming immigration law, and nurturing a more egalitarian economy with increased upward mobility out of the working class. In that sense, the speech played to the social discontents washing through American society – but without the grand surgery to change anything fundamental. Barack Obama effectively played a game of “small ball” that spoke to tinkering at the margins, rather than the announcement of any grand new expansive programs and spending. This, of course, was largely due to the fact that the big visions were unlikely to gain much traction within Congress, as long as the Republicans retain control of the lower house of that body.

Jacob Zuma’s speech barely spoke to foreign policy either, and where it did, there were, effectively, only the broad-brush banalities of praising South Africa’s role in various international and multilateral bodies. Absent in all of this was any sense of specific achievements, beyond the fact of the participation itself. In contrast to his predecessor’s large horizon, there was no sense of an all-encompassing South African vision for the continent, or the larger purposes of the country’s interests in global governance.

In Jacob Zuma’s speech on Thursday evening, there was little sense of an expansive new vision for the country either. His ad hoc admonition to labour and business to settle wage disputes in the broader interest of the nation was perhaps the closest his speech came to reaching for that broader national picture. If Zuma’s speech unveiled no really new visions, instead, there was the now-familiar, usual laundry list of ongoing programmes, spending on this and that, and a near-Panglossian argument that social discord is simply a function of the revolution of rising expectations and will fixed as the remaining water reticulation networks are hooked up.

While Jacob Zuma’s party is obviously not restrained in proposing new initiatives in the way that Barack Obama’s administration is, there is a still a very real limitation on most such ventures anyway. And, of course, the country’s actual budgetary and financial circumstances. The growing percentage of the economy dedicated to government spending is already worrisome to many, and the current accounts deficit, the continuing deindustrialisation and the sinking rand have helped ensure South Africa’s economy has become a charter member of a new international grouping – the fragile five.

There was a moment in the president’s speech where he tried to put the blame for the country’s straitened economic situation on America’s own monetary decisions, but that really can’t work. South Africa is in charge of its own ship, and it has to react to changing economic circumstances just as every other nation must. However, the resulting fiscal squeeze almost certainly will leave very little room for any large-scale new initiatives – something that will only become clearer as the next budget is unveiled.

In sum, this year’s SONA was pretty much by the numbers again – maybe a bit more personal, as with a couple of shout-outs to various heroes and worthies in attendance, including a few iconic cultural figures, some ritualised acknowledgements to departed giants and stalwarts of the anti-Apartheid struggle, a few giggles, and just a bit less agony by the analysts over his delivery of this year’s speech. But in large measure, it really amounted to an effort to say, in effect, “We will keep on going, give us some time, we know what we are doing and where we are going. Any disagreements are coming from malcontents out there on the fringes of polite society.” Come May, however, we will find out just how closely the citizens of the nation will agree with his analysis. DM

Photo by Greg Nicolson.


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