South Africa

SONA2015: Lost in thunder, Zuma’s actual speech

By Nel Marais 13 February 2015

While the EFF consolidated its image as political ruffians, it managed to draw armed security force personnel (neatly dressed in white shirts, maybe to distinguish them from the Ossewa Brandwag’s Grey Shirt brigades) into parliament. The DA continued with its new strategy of walk-outs. Meanwhile the State Security Agency (or someone with the necessary toys) tried to block all cellphone signals in and around Parliament, only for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to send a short, sharp message to the young minister of state security to stop fooling around. And then, of course, a relaxed and healthy-looking President Jacob Zuma presented another speech, clearly prepared by a visionless committee, telling the nation that (almost everything) was on track… to somewhere. By NEL MARAIS.

From a substance point of view, President Jacob Zuma’s speech was more noteworthy for what it did not address than for its actual facts and figures, of which there was the usual abundance.

Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, made a valid point in his post-Sona remarks. Although Zuma referred to the more than 15 million people employed, he did not mention that at least 8.1 million people are unemployed. He could have added that there has recently been a steep upward trajectory in the number of those who have simply given up on their search for employment.

The president was also very quiet on poverty and inequality. The recently-released results of the 2011 Income and Expenditure Survey by Statistics South Africa show that, regardless of the poverty line one adopts, progress in the improvement of the quality of life for most South Africans has been painstakingly slow.

Inequality remains crippling and is becoming increasingly polarising, given its obvious racial character. Zuma avoided any mention of the recent violence aimed at foreign shop owners in Soweto and other areas, by implication siding with cabinet ministers who denied that this was a manifestation of xenophobia.

The mining investment community was probably dumbfounded by the fact that Zuma simply brushed over the now long-delayed Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment bill (MPRDA) and that he failed to reveal which minerals are to be directly affected by the state’s beneficiation plans.

The speech was often very specific on districts and even townships that would benefit from government interventions, but the Western Cape was almost never mentioned. Given the ANC’s insistence that ‘’South Africa cannot be free until the Western Cape is free’’, i.e. no longer under opposition control, the ruling party’s structures in the province have to be wondering how they will ever regain control if the national government continues to ignore the socio-economic needs of the Cape.

The parlous state of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was largely disregarded, maybe because this problem has been shifted to Ramaphosa’s broad shoulders. The ANC knows that its objective of ‘’radical economic transformation’’, taking place concomitant with the achievement of rapid growth, will remain impossible without these entities functioning at their optimal capacity, something not even the most leftist ideologues within the ruling party expect to happen soon.

In shrill contrast to his speech in 2014, Zuma placed little emphasis on the National Development Plan, maybe on advice of his growing inner circle of Cosatu and SA Communist Party (SACP) strategists and advisors, or maybe because he didn’t want to talk about policies that carry the Ramaphosa label.

Tellingly, Zuma preferred to steer clear from the real economic growth facts. He blamed the international economic slowdown and ‘’local challenges’’, such as insufficient and unreliable energy supplies, but he failed to acknowledge that the state is fast running out of fiscal space if government sustains its present spending habits that prioritise current expenditure over future investment. The macro-economic realities facing the country were probably not deemed to be part of the government’s ‘good story’ and, therefore, got left out, as did corruption, which only received a brief mention, namely that the country has seven institutions fighting this scourge. He did not find it necessary to allude to the management crises laying these institutions low.

Predictable as it was, the EFF’s forced removal from parliament by ‘’security forces’’ did steal the thunder. Zuma chose not to even refer to the EFF’s behaviour when he restarted his speech, maybe arguing that if you ignore them, they might one day disappear. He is probably out of luck as far as this one is concerned.

The DA managed a more dignified exit, after a moment of apparent uncertainty on whether its parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, was actually going to deliver on his threat.

The problem is that many of the smaller opposition parties, including the ultra-conservative Vryheidsfront Plus and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) might see this as an opportunity to gain respectability and more parliamentary influence. In the case of the IFP, there might even be the first glimmer of a possible reconciliation between itself and the ANC.

Zuma repeated his government’s intention to introduce a number of changes to speed up land reform in the country, including setting a ceiling of land ownership at a maximum of 12,000 ha.

He confirmed that foreign nationals would not be allowed to own land in South Africa, but would be eligible for long-term leases.

The process of establishing the Office of the Valuer-General is underway, which is established in terms of the Property Valuation Act. Once implemented, the law will stop the reliance on the willing-buyer, willing-seller method in respect of land acquisition by the state,” Zuma said.

He said government was working with the private sector to develop an agricultural policy action plan to bring one million hectares of under-utilised land into full production over the next three years. A major concern has been that communities who have received land do not have the know-how, nor have they been given the correct assistance to develop their land, but no details were provided on how this would be addressed.

As one could expect, Zuma gave detailed attention to the energy crisis, without making any definite promises. He indicated that, given the high cost of diesel, Eskom had been directed to switch from diesel to gas as a source of energy for the utility’s generators, although this is clearly not something that could be done overnight.

He also reiterated that government was ‘’exploring the procurement of the 9,600 megawatts nuclear build programme as approved in the Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2030.’’, and added that to date government had signed inter-governmental agreements and carried out vendor parade workshops in which five countries came to present their proposals on nuclear power: the United States of America, South Korea, Russia, France and China.

He promised that all these countries would be engaged in ‘’a fair, transparent, and competitive procurement process to select a strategic partner or partners to undertake the nuclear build programme’’, although this will do little to end speculation that Russia has already been chosen as the preferred partner.

According to the president, the target is ‘’to connect the first unit to the grid by 2023, just in time for Eskom to retire part of its ageing power plants’’, but this might be extremely optimistic, given the delays that have been experienced with the new coal-fired stations.

Almost unbelievably, Zuma repeated the claim that ‘’the Grand Inga Hydro-Electrical Project partnership with the Democratic Republic of Congo will generate over 48,000 megawatts of clean hydro-electricity. South Africa will have access to over 15,000 megawatts.’’ This project has been in the doldrums for nearly a decade and political instability concerns in the DRC make it little more than a long-term regional desire rather than a short- to medium-term solution.

Sona 2015 will be remembered as the night parliament lost even more of its historic glamour, and constitutional democracy took a bit of a hammering. It will not be remembered for anything Zuma said, promised or envisioned. DM

Photo: South African president, Jacob Zuma during the State Of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, 12 February 2015. The State of the Nation address was disrupted by the EFF resulting in the party being ordered out of the chamber by security forces. EPA/RODGER BOSCH/POOL

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