The good thing was that the rand did not go plummeting after President Jacob Zuma’s reply to the State of the Nation Address (SONA) debate, which dwelt a great deal on economic issues and efforts to prevent a ratings downgrade. The rand, in fact, gained in strength on Thursday evening. Since December, when Zuma knocked the wind out of the currency by firing former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, the rand has developed a tenuous relationship with the president. So its strengthening, though driven by multiple factors, was somewhat of a vote of confidence in what the president said in Parliament.
Zuma had taken a pummelling in the SONA debate with most opposition speakers calling for him to step down and the ANC depleted of the will and the ammunition to defend him. It was up to Zuma to step up to the plate and respond to the barrage of criticism. He did not tackle the issues haunting him currently – the gamble with the finance ministry, the Nkandla U-turn and his relationship with the Gupta family – but it is clear the president has been given a wake up call and will be compelled to act more responsibly.
“Our position is that since we cannot change the global economic outlook, we will focus on correcting domestic circumstances that have affected confidence in the economy,” Zuma said. This is a different approach to Zuma constantly laying the blame for poor economic performance and slow growth on global conditions and not taking responsibility for what has gone wrong locally.
He said his government has met four times with business leaders since mid-January and the partnership was “yielding results”. Areas of focus include countering the prospect of a sovereign ratings downgrade, identifying areas for co-investment and SMME development.
Among the points raised by business leaders were the need to unite behind the National Development Plan (NDP), fiscal consolidation and improved management and governance of state owned enterprises. Business also wants certain regulations and laws reviewed that impede investment in the economy and which make doing business in South Africa expensive, Zuma said.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and chairman of Telkom Jabu Mabuza were appointed to lead two implementation teams to take these matters forward. Up to now, government has been big on rhetoric but atrocious on implementation. Clearly this has to change.
Zuma said South Africa’s prudent fiscal management and sound monetary policies supported macroeconomic stability and promoted competitiveness. “It is for this reason that we say that South Africa’s positive attributes far outweigh the challenges. And these challenges are being addressed through dedicated programmes and plans,” he said.
With the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) still boycotting the SONA debate after their walkout on Tuesday, Zuma navigated through his reply without interruption. He appeared more at ease than when he was delivering the SONA, after the commotion in the House last Thursday night. But while the session went without disturbance, excessive security measures were again placed around the parliamentary precinct.
Inside the House, Zuma tried to reduce the hostility of the past week by acknowledging points raised by opposition parties and attempted to foster cooperation for the sake of the country.
Zuma was criticised for paying little attention to education in the SONA. In his reply to the debate, however, he spoke at length on the issue, which he said remained an apex priority. Through a R1 billion conditional grant, government is promoting technical and vocational education in schools across all provinces to assist towards the NDP goal of producing 30,000 artisans annually, Zuma said. Government is scheduled to connect 2,892 schools to the Internet this year and also train teachers and learners in the use of technology.
Zuma acknowledged opposition MPs’ concerns about the economy, youth development, corruption and the drought. On crime and corruption, Zuma said legislation on cyber crimes and combating of corrupt activities would be introduced in Parliament this year. As announced by the finance ministry previously, Zuma said the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer was operational and a central supplier database would be compulsory from 1 April. The use of the tender portal means that all tenders will be advertised in one place and will be accessed free of charge. Government tenders will no longer be advertised in newspapers, cutting costs for the state, Zuma said.
Zuma also announced that two new special police units were being established. The South African Narcotics Enforcement Bureau and the National Bureau for Illegal Firearms Control and Priority Violent Crime will fall under the Hawks.
Off the cuff, Zuma responded to United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa’s call for an “economic Codesa”. He said while this was a “good suggestion” he was doubtful about what it would achieve as all political parties would argue in favour of their own policies. The ANC would obviously win the argument because of its majority, Zuma said. “What happens then?”
Interestingly, Zuma did not respond several MPs’ calls for him to leave office, including Holomisa’s appeal that he exit with “dignity”. While he acknowledged several points raised by Democratic Alliance (DA) MPs, Zuma did not refer to the damning “Planet Zuma” speech by the leader of the opposition Mmusi Maimane. Maimane had accused Zuma of living on another planet, disconnected from the realities in South Africa.
Zuma did however commend Maimane for objecting to the EFF’s disruptions during SONA. “I supported you, Sir, because I thought you were making a good point,” Zuma said. But he said he became worried when DA members started behaving in a similar manner.
Zuma then urged MPs to change their behaviour, saying they were damaging the image of the country. “I think we should change. We are not doing any good for our voters. We have to think about the people who sent us here. What do they learn from us?”
“I believe when we say ‘honourable members’, we mean it and people must understand the word to be really serious. We cannot call ourselves honourable and behave in a dishonourable manner.”
Zuma said Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi had tried in vain to appeal for respect in the House, and as an elder he was also doing the same. “Let us disagree with respect. It is a plea I am making,” Zuma said.
The message did not go down well with the EFF, which issued a statement calling Zuma’s comments “ageist”.
“Zuma, emboldened by the absence of the EFF in the National Assembly, chastised what he imagines to be disrespectful behaviour of Members of Parliament whose job is to hold him accountable, among other important things,” the EFF said.
“We wish to remind Zuma that as the EFF we have no respect for him, regardless of how old he may be and we regard him as an illegitimate and discredited leader who has no right to be standing in the National Assembly and pronounce on any matters of our state and the world.”
Zuma certainly did seem emboldened, possibly because he had survived an eventful two weeks in the Constitutional Court and Parliament. He was more gracious towards opposition parties, though avoiding anything EFF leader Julius Malema had said in a hard-hitting speech on Tuesday.
Zuma’s SONA reply has lined up the presentation of the Budget on Wednesday. It will be the most closely watched Budget, particularly for announcements on taxation and expenditure cuts, but also to see whether Zuma and Gordhan are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Zuma’s central message in the SONA was that he had heard people’s concerns about what was going wrong. In his reply to the SONA debate on Thursday, he appeared to be appealing to people’s patriotism to help fix what went wrong.
“Now is the time for us to unite and harness this power and provide leadership and direction to our people during this difficult time,” Zuma said. “Together we can move South Africa forward, not for a party but for South Africa and its people.”
The bar is certainly set low so perhaps this is the best to be expected from Zuma. But the president will have to do a lot more heavy lifting before he can regain the trust of the nation and credibility as a leader. 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. Picture: GCIS/SAPA
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