Our government is adept at irony.
President Jacob Zuma will address a crowd of “10,000 people” at the Grand Parade in Cape Town after his State of the Nation address (Sona) on Thursday evening.
As Mandela did, we are told.
“Zuma is no Mandela,” one might add.
The rally has been styled as an “in touch” President speaking to “ordinary” citizens instead of being sashayed off to an expensive dinner. Spot the irony when Zuma comes to Parliament amid tighter security than ever before. Journalists and civil society groups have raised concerns about the unprecedented security measures in place for this year’s Sona.
Lest we forget it was the State Security Agency (SSA) that was at the centre of the “signal jamming” debacle at Sona 2015. Usually the security overkill starts on the highway leading into the Cape Town CBD with military police and armoured vehicles dotted around pointlessly. Last year saw snipers on rooftops and roads barricaded by barbed wire – so much for the People’s Parliament. For whatever atmosphere there is within the precinct, together with marching bands and flag-waving, the actual CBD is in lock-down virtually 24 hours before Sona. The reality is that many businesses and shops shut early to prevent their staff getting caught up in road blockades while the President and his entourage speed by in their German SUVs. So Zuma in fact comes into a veritable “ghost town” as the streets around Parliament are eerily silent with only police and the army to bear witness. The people are everywhere absent yet will be conjured up for a rally at around 9pm on Thursday evening. But that is the era of falsehood and spectacle that we live in. The excessive security arrangements only belie Zuma’s own insecurity and paranoia, nothing else.
Zuma will not only address the post-Sona rally but also meet with business leaders for lunch before his address. The lunch will take place at Grand West Casino. One could hardly think of a less appropriate place to discuss “radical economic transformation” but Zuma is a political gambler.
Despite the optics of all this, in a world and country turned upside down, what should the President be saying to South Africans on Thursday evening?
Here’s a guide to the “Big Five” issues the President might wish to tackle – or not:
#1: It’s always been about the economy, stupid! But more than that, it is about inequality and its effects. According to economist Thomas Piketty, income inequality in South Africa is rising. Over 12-million people live in extreme poverty and one in four South Africans goes to bed hungry according to ActionAid. Piketty’s key statistic is that 60%-65% of South Africa’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the population. Of course, this group historically has been predominantly, almost exclusively, white.
Piketty’s solution? It is to recognise the failure of BBBEE, implement a national minimum wage and accelerate land reform. Included in that must also be an urgent attempt to deal with our crises of education and youth unemployment. If we can agree that this is broadly right, then where is the social solidarity to fix the problem? While the ANC has all these issues on its agenda, it looks tired and too self-interested to lead the charge and make attempts at building the social consensus we need to even start discussing inequality sensibly. There are too many who enter the debate on the economy who are in fact destructive proxies seeking self-enrichment. We have seen this recently in the confused “debate” on “white monopoly capital”.
How “radical” is the ANC prepared to be as it seeks desperately to pull a rabbit out of the hat to deal with social instability and deep inequality? The ANC would have to muster the leadership to deal with its own internal contradictions on economic policy first. When Zuma himself seeks to undermine Finance minister Pravin Gordhan at every turn, it becomes difficult to ensure economic stability. Intrinsically linked to the fraught relationship between Zuma and Gordhan is the cost of the proposed nuclear deal. Whether Zuma will raise the deal in his address remains to be seen. Civil society groups have joined forces to stop the deal and the Right to Know campaign has asked a series of provocative questions in relation to the secret deal and its affordability.
It is unlikely that Zuma will answer these questions directly but they will persist. Economic transformation, whether radical or not means ensuring that the country is not hamstrung by future liabilities it is unable to meet.
#2: State capture and corruption: Zuma is in the invidious position of only being able to pay lip service to the so-called “fight against corruption”. He has enriched himself at our expense and undermined the Constitution flagrantly. What words of cold comfort will he have when speaking about corruption? Zuma himself also sits at the heart of efforts to capture the state, more specifically state-owned enterprises. This past week we heard that SAA Board chair, the inept Dudu Miyeni had gone on a spending spree of hundreds of thousands of rands. How is it possible that Miyeni retains her position? If the President is serious about the economy and clamping down on corruption, he ought to be ensuring that corporate governance within SOEs improves dramatically.
#3: The securitisation of the state: If we are to agree that we wish to move towards a state in which constitutional rights are fully respected then the insertion of the SSA into aspects of South African life must be limited. Over the past year we have seen instances of police brutality in the #feesmustfall protests which only created a more incendiary environment and violated rights. In addition, state secrecy has often fuelled these battles and will no doubt continue to do so as government becomes more defensive in the face of increasing protests. The Constitution commits us to a society with open, transparent and responsive governance. The Zuma administration, in particular has focused rather more on a closed mode of governance. Perhaps the President will also fill us in on the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) that lies in his in-tray gathering dust. Concerns have also been raised about the overly broad Cybercrimes Bill provisions.
#4: A caring state: what does it look like? During the Zuma years, there has been many a blight on public life. The Presidency has been tainted by repeated scandal involving Zuma, yet what happened at Marikana and at Life Esidimeni must be this government’s greatest shame. Striking workers at Marikana were met with death at the hands of police and years later there has been no true accountability. Perhaps in death the relatives of those mentally ill patients who died at Life Esidimeni will find some justice even now, years later.
They are two incidents each with a very different genesis yet they both say something about the way in which the state, whether by force or neglect, treats its most vulnerable. Somehow the interactions citizens have with the state grows worse the poorer they are. Any cursory trip to a Home Affairs office or any other interaction with the state, usually involves being transported into a place of aesthetic horror and served by many who seem to lack the energy or the will to ensure that a dignified service is provided. The vacant stares of the vulnerable greet one all too often in the places where births, deaths and identity are registered. It does not have to be this way and the President has an opportunity to address this lack of care. There is much talk of a developmental state yet that will never materialise if public servants shirk their duty and if there is no political accountability for horrors like Marikana or the deaths at Life Esidimeni.
Given his own compromised position, it is hard to see how the President can address the nation credibly on any of these issues.
And so, #5 really is Zuma’s only option if he were a man of conscience and principle; #5: “I resign”. DM
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope