If this year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) goes ahead as scheduled on 11 February, it will probably be the first time that President Jacob Zuma will have the undivided attention of every South African. Such are the disastrous conditions of South Africa’s political economy, of society, in general, and global perceptions of the country, that Zuma will be expected, for once, to act Presidential.
There is every possibility that this might be the last SONA of Zuma’s presidency; maybe it is his (last) chance to be presidential, and assure us that the decline and fall of democracy in South Africa is but a figment of our frayed imagination and delusions.
What Zuma says in his SONA this year, may mark a turning point in a Presidency that has divided the country in a mangle of crude, arbitrary and often criss-crossing lines that have left South African society looking increasingly like a broken mirror. The broken mirror, as metaphor, reflects the truth, in jagged shards, fractured pieces and with missing pieces and empty spaces that we fill with impressions of the fragmented images, and imperfect reflections of ourselves, our hopes and fears. You have to look really hard to see something worthy, something truthful, in the bits and pieces of the shattered mirror, but it’s the whole picture that is disturbing. Tennyson’s curse has come upon us.
Zuma must look into this mirror, and he will see, in each refraction of light, the images of our decline, under his presidency. The political economy veers towards collapse, and society is fractious; state-owned enterprises have been hollowed out; increased dysfunction and maladministration in health care, in home affairs, in the police service and national defence force have plunged communities deeper into despair uncertainty; rampant corruption, and uneven development across the country, most notably the decline in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, have reduced democracy, justice and social transformation – from an iniquitous past to a more prosperous and stable society – to a farce; we have an education system that is a “national catastrophe”; quite embarrassingly, in-fighting within the ruling alliance makes it difficult to trust anyone in power (it is really hard to avoid a sense of schadenfreude, until you realise that the ruling alliance holds our future in their greasy fingers); across the country communities are blighted by crime and violence, by water and electricity shortages, a looming food crisis, and there is widespread emulation of the crude, gauche, cringe-worthy, avaricious and pernicious leadership that South Africa has thrown up over the past decade or so.
To the extent that it is possible, we are a country suffering a collective form of paranoid schizophrenia; we have persecutory delusions (whites persecute blacks, and blacks persecute whites), we’re conspiratorial (any and all criticism has a racist, sexist, counter-revolutionary or anti-democratic subtext) and our delusions make it almost impossible to interpret our own experiences, without resorting to exaggeration or lies. All of these are pictures of us all, reflected in little pieces of broken mirror.
This, then, is the society that lies in waiting for President Zuma’s 2016 Sona. Everyone is waiting for Zuma’s SONA; even his greatest detractors among the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are waiting with bated breath. When he stands at the podium in Parliament next month, Zuma will be expected, at least perceptibly, to represent all South Africans, and not just the ruling alliance. He will have to start with being forthright and honest. He has to ignore his party’s spin, abandon the “good story to tell” meme, and focus on actual conditions and the behaviour of the state-party nexus. Zuma must return trust to South African political economy and society; the trust that is measured by behaviour, conduct and that is evident in the things government do, every day, and not what the spin-doctors tell us they are doing. Once Zuma, and the people around him, understand this they must focus on honesty – first.
Before sitting down to write this piece, I went through my notes and other bits and pieces I have scribbled over the past several months. Among the detritus of a scribbler, I came across a speech, the 1990 New Year’s message that Vaclav Havel gave to the Czechoslovak Republic, which, never mind his legacy, was daring, brutally honest and eloquent. This was what Havel told the Czechoslovak people:
“My fellow citizens. For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.
Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available.
If Zuma approaches this SONA with this type of honesty, he would go some way to resuscitating whatever credibility he may have left. Following this, Zuma has to be firm, decisive and show visionary decision-making. He has to call the state back to work in service of the people. He has to tell teachers to go back to teaching – full-time teachers should not consider teaching a distraction – and avoid a systemic catastrophe. For now, there are pockets of excellence in education, but we have to stop the rot before it reaches every school and every classroom.
Zuma should take a leaf from Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshega’s book of honesty: “When we ushered in the new South Africa in 1994, we vowed to create a single national education system that delivers quality education for all,” she said over the weekend. “If one learner fails, that’s a challenge. If two fail, that’s a problem. But if 25% of a cohort fails, then we must have sleepless nights, as this is akin to a national crisis,” Motshekga said.
Motshekga, laid down lines that were described as brutally honest, pointed to dismal failings among teachers, and sent out a warning that non-performance will be addressed, directly. A senior education executive from KwaZulu-Natal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told City Press that many officials had “appreciated the speech, as it sounds like a radical departure from how things are done… It looks like we have reached a turning point. To be honest with you, I have never heard an ANC minister talk so frankly about issues.”
There are very many exceptionally hard-working people in the public service. There are, also, those who benefit from the system of blat – cronyism, favouritism, criminality and bribery – and who have no obligation, or any sense of compunction for failing in their public duty. Zuma has to tell public servants to pull up their socks, or they must leave the public service or face dismissal for non-performance.
South Africa’s greatest problem, it seems, is precisely the state-party nexus. Everywhere you look, civil society and social movements are helping the poor, the victims of xenophobia, people who are in areas of low-rainfall and desperately in need of water. Students are standing up for themselves, because the state-party nexus has let them down, and abandoned the promise of quality free education for all. In cornerstone institutions that, at least constitutionally, lie beyond the immediate reach of the Presidency (like the Constitutional Court, or the Reserve Bank), there are high levels of professionalism, knowledge, insight and trust. It is not easy to make the same claim about other institutions of the state.
All of our problems are reflected in that broken mirror which Zuma has to stare into on the day that he delivers the SONA. When he stands at the podium, and the EFF, actually, let him deliver his speech, the President will have everyone’s attention. His, and our fate is in his hands. DM