South Africa

South Africa

SONA 2015, and a Tale of Two Presidents

SONA 2015, and a Tale of Two Presidents

Exactly twenty-five years ago, Nelson Mandela took his first steps to freedom. Thus began the rebuilding of a nation that was in desperate need of a new narrative. And what a narrative it turned out to be. The journey from Apartheid to democratic governance was a story for the ages. It is now time for a new story, a new vision, a new walk from the bondage of nothingness. Will that story begin this week? Will future generations remember this as a defining time for a new era? Will the words spoken be lauded for years to come? Will the images from the 2015 State of the Nation Address become iconic reminders of South Africa’s date with destiny? And... So why are we being sucked in by the hype? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Does anyone remember why Julius Malema was booted out of the ANC? One of the main charges against him was unfavourably comparing President Jacob Zuma to his predecessor and former arch nemesis Thabo Mbeki. There are two things Zuma is hypersensitive about. One is Nkandla – we have witnessed several times the froth he gets into over questions about his homestead. Nkandla was his sanctum before it became a monument to corruption and excess, and he resents that it is now part of the popular lexicon, meaning something else than what it is to him.

The second thing Zuma is sensitive about is Mbeki. If there was one person who made him feel inferior, it is the man who appointed him as his deputy and then fired him for being implicated in Schabir Shaik’s corruption trial. Zuma is rarely held accountable for his deeds; Mbeki held him accountable and exercised power over him that not many people ever had.

Zuma faces a daily onslaught of criticism from various sectors of society. It seems to bounce off him and seldom provokes a reaction. When Malema said that Mbeki was the “best leader” produced by the ANC and was better than Zuma, it stung. But who else can Zuma be measured against in terms of performance in running the country? Who else stood at the podium in Parliament after serving a full term as president and delivered a State of the Nation Address (SONA) as a re-elected leader? Who else faced the burden of leadership and constant anger and criticism from those over whom they preside?

In his last SONA in 2008, Mbeki was in the rather uncomfortable position of being president of the republic but not of the ANC. Just two months prior, Zuma had been elected as ANC president at the Polokwane conference. So when Mbeki delivered the SONA that year, he was skydiving without a parachute. It made him acutely aware of the criticism of his presidency and the conditions in the country at the time – more so than in any of the SONAs he presented prior to that, including at the height of the Aids, arms deal and Zimbabwe crises.

This is what Mbeki said in his 2008 SONA:

“As I was preparing this Address, one among us suggested to me that our country was being buffeted by strong cross-winds that made it especially difficult to foresee where our country will be tomorrow. He suggested that this morning, to capture what he considers the essence of the reality confronting us, I should recall the well-known words with which Charles Dickens opened his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. And so I quote these words:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

“You will ask whether I agree with this assessment, whether I too believe that we have entered an era of confusion, in which all of us cannot but lose our way, unsure of our steps, unsteady on our feet, fearful of the future! My answer to this question is a definite No!”

Mbeki went on to say:

“However, like all the Honourable Members, I am aware of the fact that many in our society are troubled by a deep sense of unease about where our country will be tomorrow. They are concerned about the national emergency into which the country has been thrown by the unexpected disruptions in the supply of electricity. They are concerned about some developments in our economy, especially the steady increase in interest rates, food and fuel prices which further impoverish especially the poor.

“They are worried about whether we have the capacity to defend the democratic rights and the democratic Constitution which were born of enormous sacrifices. This is driven by such developments as the prosecution of the National Commissioner of Police, the suspension of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, fears about a threat to the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, and the attendant allegations about the abuse of state power for political purposes.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? With a few amendments, this could have been a diagnosis of South Africa’s problems in 2015, except that it would be harder to argue that the country has not “entered an era of confusion, in which all of us cannot but lose our way, unsure of our steps, unsteady on our feet, fearful of the future”.  

The biggest difference is how the president then and the president now react to the problems afflicting the country. This was Mbeki’s response:

“Most obviously it would be irresponsible to ignore these and other concerns or dismiss them as mere jeremiads typical of the prophets of doom… Let me therefore make bold to say that this historical moment demands that our nation should unite as never before and strain every sinew of its collective body to address our common challenges and keep alive the dream that has sustained all of us as we travelled along the uncharted road towards the creation of the South Africa visualised in our Constitution.

“The national emergency represented by the current power outages poses the challenge and presents the opportunity to the entirety of our nation to give concrete expression to the call we have just made for all of us to unite in action and act in unity to keep our country on course… This having been said, it is however also necessary that we take this opportunity to convey to the country the apologies of both the government and Eskom for the national emergency which has resulted in all of us having to contend with the consequences of load-shedding. I would also like to thank all citizens for their resilience and forbearing in the face of the current difficulties.”

Mbeki was recalled from office seven months after he delivered this speech, which he had themed “Business Unusual”. Who knows if he would have pursued the interventions he outlined then to deal with the electricity crisis had he been allowed to complete his term and had there been a natural handover of power to the next administration? But it is clear that the pursuance of “business as usual” at Eskom and in government that prompted the crisis that now exists.

Perhaps Zuma will have a different response in his 2015 SONA to what he has been saying up to now. Perhaps he will shed the “Apartheid created the problem” and “we are the victims of our own success” line of reasoning, apologise for dropping the ball on increasing power generation, and also rally the nation to act in unity to overcome our challenges. Perhaps he will emerge from under the Nkandla cloud and deliver the speech of his life, one worthy of being delivered in the week of the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

Maybe Zuma will show that he is a better leader than Mbeki, and say convincingly that South Africa is moving past the “season of darkness” and beginning a new story. Perhaps then the 2015 SONA will be worthy of all hype and expectation.

But is Zuma capable of being such a leader? With his party mollycoddling him, does he ever feel the pressure Mbeki did to diagnose the problems of the time and define a course of action to fix them? Can he snap out of “business as usual” mode to make active and sweeping interventions?

The sad reality is that the reason the nation has been sucked into the hype of “pay back the money” is because there is nothing else to look forward to. Mbeki had an awakening because he was under immense political pressure from inside the ANC and the country and had to step up. After Thursday’s speech, Zuma still has four more SONAs to deliver. He faces no pressure whatsoever from inside his party and were it not for Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters threatening to interrupt his speech, this would just be another event on the presidential calendar.

The 2015 SONA should not be defined by a sideshow over a scandal. It should be about a leader defining the time and presenting a vision based on a connection with reality of South Africa as it is. It is only then that what Dickens described as “the worst of times”, “the epoch of incredulity”, “the season of darkness” and “the winter of our despair” would truly be behind us. DM

Photo: African National Congress former deputy Jacob Zuma is announced as having won the election to party president by some 824 votes against incumbent Thabo Mbeki, Polokwane South Africa 18 Dec 2007. (Greg Marinovich)


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