South Africa

South Africa

State of the Nation preview: Swing low, expectations, swing low

State of the Nation preview: Swing low, expectations, swing low

President Jacob Zuma is about to give a State of the Nation Address that should be the culmination of his political career. No matter what happens to him now, no one can take away from him the fact that he has led the ANC to two election victories. He is now on a par with former best friend and then worst enemy Thabo Mbeki. He has been able to cock a snook at all of his detractors, and can look forward to his name going down in history. This should be the moment to stamp his authority, to create a legacy, to be able to say that his is the good story to tell. And yet, he’s doing it against a backdrop of a slowing economy, harsh words from ratings agencies, and a fundamental shift underway in the relationships between employers and workers. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Never have expectations been so low.

No one seems to seriously expect that Zuma is going to somehow grab the bull by the horns tonight, and actually provide a plan of action. No one really thinks that he’s going to provide any answers to the problems we face. Worse, no one even thinks he’s going to start a national discussion on the road to finding those answers. In fact, it would seem hard to find someone outside of the ANC who would put their hands on their hearts and declare that they expect to find any direction at all in this speech.

It’s not hard to understand why.

In all the State of Nation speeches Zuma has given, there hasn’t been any direction up until now, so why would there suddenly be a change?

The low point was probably his last such speech, just this February: there were no promises or plans at all; rather a look back on the “good story to tell”. But go back further; go back to February last year, and there were no concrete promises either. The reason may be that in the years past, when concrete promises had been made, it had become tradition for media houses to spend the week before the State of the Nation to actually check how many had been kept.

That usually made for a depressing lead-up to the speech itself.

This time around, there really is no excuse for some direction. Zuma is large and in charge of the ANC, he’s large and in charge of the country. He has absolutely nothing to lose, no future elections, no future ANC leadership contests [we presume – Ed], no legacy to squander; AND he does have political capital. He won’t in just two years time, because the ANC conference of 2017 will be about to elect a new leader.

So if he doesn’t move now, he is simply not going to.

But if Zuma, and by extension the National Executive Committee that he seems to control, does move, which way will it go?

Considering that the strike in the platinum sector seems all but over, surely there is plenty to do in this sector. It’s about mining, the Labour Relations Act, and our history. As Carol Paton has pointed out in Business Day, it was last-minute changes to the Labour Relations Act, inserted by the ANC itself in February, that allowed this strike to go on for as long as it did. The Bill had been approved by Nedlac, and thus had the stamp from both business and labour. But ANC MPs insisted on removing the need for strike ballots at the last minute, along with changing a provision about when a company could go to court to have a strike declared illegal. Obviously this was at the behest of COSATU, which contains the National Union of Mineworkers. But the biggest beneficiary has been the NUM’s enemy, AMCU.

Oh, the irony.

Anyway, it would be perfectly rational of the ANC to now have another think about those particular provisions. Whatever Zuma says about mining and labour law in general could well be one of the headlines of his speech.

But that strike, along with the Economic Freedom Fighters’ final tally in the elections, is going to make many people ask if Zuma is now going to really show that the time has come for “radical transformation”. Based on the evidence up until now, it seems unlikely. We’ve heard the phrase so many times – the Left is now so weak within the Alliance, while the business lobby is stronger than it’s ever been – that it would be surprising, were that to happen.

And the history of these speeches tells us that even when there has been the odd big announcement, in the end, the civil servants water it all down anyway.

The question then would be: will Zuma announce something eye-catching anyway, just because? Again, the short answer is probably no. That’s because he isn’t really dealing with a media/television democracy. He’s dealing with a country that the ANC governs through winning elections by door-to-door campaigning. So there’s no real temptation, no real benefit, from winning a television victory.

So then, that’s what not to expect… But what will there be? There will be applause when he walks in. There will be applause when he points out certain guests. Applause when he talks about the election results.

To look at the ANC’s election manifesto, you would expect talk about jobs. But it will probably be talk about government-created jobs, rather than private sector jobs. There will be talk about crime and the police; about, perhaps, a new plan to some of the problems in the health sector. Nothing dramatic, you understand; just something to keep the engines ticking over.

All of this has the potential to create a serious news vacuum the morning after the speech. And Julius Malema, like nature, abhors a vacuum. He’s likely to try to fill it. Just by adding a splash of red to proceedings, which is pretty much likely to happen anyway. The fashion parade before the speech has become slightly staid, in my view, over the last few years [Ah yes, you are of course one of the country’s best known fashion experts – Ed], and could do with some reinvigoration.

The question is whether he’s going to do something else, whether he has some move to pull. No doubt he will be the first person all the reporters playing Political Red Carpet immediately after the speech will go to. But will he pull some stunt during the speech itself? You could imagine the symbolism, should he and those in red decide to walk out before Zuma’s finished. Or if they just leave the benches bare in some comment about the uselessness of Parliament and the politics of the establishment in general.

When Malema was still inside the ANC, it was common for his five-minute speech to create more headlines than an hour-long presentation by Zuma at the same event. Malema is unlikely to have forgotten the value of that.

But as for the speech itself? Never have expectations been so low.

Maybe I’m wrong. I certainly hope so. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma responds to his political rivals in Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday, 20 February 2014 following his State-of-the-Nation address. Zuma was replying to the commentary on the address he delivered last Thursday. Picture: GCIS/SAPA


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