South Africa

State of the Nation 2014: Compatriots, lend me your ears – and your vote

By Ranjeni Munusamy 14 February 2014

It was never going to the speech that stopped traffic. The 2014 State of the Nation address was to be President Jacob Zuma’s brag sheet at the end of his first term, and the ANC’s testimonial of achievements for the past 20 years. It was the rose-tinted view from the top – meant to counter the avalanche of critical commentary and reverberation from the burning streets of South Africa’s townships. On paper, it sounded like a country at the top of its game, with a few minor problems. Between the lines, it was a plea from a besieged leader trying to convince his nation that his troubled presidency had in fact been a great success and five more years of him as Number One would keep the “good story” going. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The most interesting and significant part of President Jacob Zuma’s address to the nation on Thursday night was what he said off script. The president deviated from the nearly 6,000 words in the prepared text of the 2014 State of the Nation address to urge an end to conflict in the mining sector.

“In no way can we have conflict that destroys the economy,” Zuma said, trying to bridge the divide between the interests of mining companies and unions. While the owners want to keep their mines functioning, the unions were seeking better working conditions, decent wages and job security for their members, he said.

“It’s very important that as we negotiate and try and find solutions, to take all these matters into account. Because in the end, if these two sides don’t work together… it effects the economy of the country… We need to bear this in mind as we negotiate, as we agree on certain deals that we make.

“It must not be easy for someone to say ‘let us strike’, or for somebody to say ‘I’m now reducing the workforce’,” Zuma said.

If only Zuma would do more of that – speak from the heart, take the country into his confidence, use his tremendous skill as a mediator to build bridges and be a leader in touch with the serious problems besetting this country. But that was a brief flash in an otherwise box-ticking exercise of government’s record of delivery.

Zuma’s constant refrains during the speech was that South Africa was a much better place to live in that it was pre-1994 and that government has a “good story” to tell. Certainly, by the statistics and facts Zuma reeled out, the country has made tremendous progress over 20 years of democratic rule and much more was to come with the next ANC administration.

It was the quintessential election year speech – evoking the memory of the icons, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Moses Kotane; seemingly outstanding delivery statistics; new targets designed to impress the electorate and the promise of grand new prospects for the future. The most precise line however came in the last minute before Zuma ended the almost hour-and-a-half long speech: “This is not an occasion to present the programme of action for this financial year. That programme will be presented by the new government after the elections.”

The most mystifying line was that the government was a victim of its own success, which is why service delivery protests are raging out of control. “The dominant narrative in the case of the protests in South Africa has been to attribute them to alleged failures of government. However the protests are not simply the result of ‘failures’ of government but also of the success in delivering basic services,” Zuma said. “When 95% of households have access to water, the 5% who still need to be provided for, feel they cannot wait a moment longer. Success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations.”

Of course not everything could be gift wrapped and presented with a big bow on top.

Zuma acknowledged that the unemployment rate was far too high and that the rand was bottoming out against the dollar. “During the course of 2013, the rand depreciated by 17.6% against the US dollar. The weaker exchange rate poses a significant risk to inflation and will also make our infrastructure programme more expensive,” Zuma said.

He also acknowledged that violent protests were taking place again around the country, but said there appeared to be “premeditated violence” evidenced by the use of petrol bombs and other weapons during protests. With regard to police killings of civilians during protests, saying these could not be “overlooked or condoned”.

The only new announcement in the address appeared to be the go-ahead for fracking in the Karoo. “The development of petroleum, especially shale gas will be a game-changer for the Karoo region and the South African economy,” Zuma said. “Having evaluated the risks and opportunities, the final regulations will be released soon and will be followed by the processing and granting of licenses.”

If there is one area that the Zuma administration needs genuine applause, it is in health. With South Africa’s Aids infection and death rate being an international scandal a decade ago, the HIV and Aids turnaround is now a great success. “Mother to child transmission of HIV has declined sharply and we have doubled the number of people who are receiving anti-retroviral treatment, from one million to 2.4 million people in 2013,” Zuma said. The target for the next administration is to ensure that at least 4.6 million people are enrolled in the anti-retroviral programme, he said.

According to Zuma, over the past five years, 300 new health facilities were built, including 160 new clinics, and 10 new hospitals were built or refurbished.

The area where Zuma sounded most hollow was on corruption. He presented statistics of government officials being dismissed, fined or demoted stemming from anti-corruption efforts, and money recovered through the anti-corruption hotline. But the burgeoning of corruption at all three levels of government on Zuma’s watch cannot be avoided.

In the reaction to the speech, several opposition leaders rammed home the point that while Zuma insists that the fight against a corruption is a priority of his government, the scandal around his Nkandla home and questionable relationships with business people made all his words meaningless. Some leaders condemned Zuma for not mentioning the security upgrades at his Nkandla residence. Of course he would not have done so. Nkandla remains the unmentionable, particularly in a speech aimed at presenting Zuma and the ANC in glowing terms.

So the fact that government invested one trillion rand in public infrastructure over the past five years is a better story to tell. A 700-km fuel pipeline was built from Durban to Gauteng to transport four billion cubic litres of petrol, diesel and jet fuel a year, and close to 1,500km of new roads or lanes had been built. About 37,000 km of fibre-optic cable has been laid by the private and public sectors in the past five years and this will be significantly expanded, Zuma said.

As always, there is the eternal pipedream: South Africa needs to grow the economy at rates that are above 5% to be able to create the jobs the country needs.

Although this State of the Nation address was merely a process of going through the motions, seeing that the term of government ends in two months, Zuma certainly had a better time presenting it this year than he did in 2013. Last year he was battling flu and public attention had been diverted by the Oscar Pistorius murder of Reva Steenkamp on the morning of his speech. This year he did his best to own the moment and laced the “good news” story throughout the speech.

In three months, barring any massive surprises as the polls, Zuma will do it all again when he presents the programme of action for the new government. Then he will be emboldened by a new electoral mandate and hope that the slate would be wiped clean.

But first the people of South Africa need to critically assess the message he delivered to them on Thursday night, and decide whether to let Zuma keep telling his story for five more years. DM

Photo by Greg Nicolson.

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