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Zuma must define the new centre

14th February 2013


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Today President Jacob Zuma will deliver his fifth State of the Nation Address to parliament. Judging by the previous four, we should not expect the kind of oratory fireworks which, by virtue of their delivery alone, will sweep a nation into action. And while a more energetic presentation will do no harm in adding glamour to the occasion, it will be a grave mistake to judge his speech with a yardstick that is overly calibrated with emotive criteria. Citizens the world over have become weary of leaders talking the talk, without being able to walk the walk. They want content and action. Ditto in South Africa.

In December, Cyril Ramaphosa, the new ANC deputy president said that “the time for talking is over. We want action, and action man Jacob Zuma will ensure that this country moves forward.” While this may have been part of a broader strategy to rebrand Zuma, whose leadership has courted unwanted controversy during his first term, this may also be perfect timing for the president to make action his trademark and secure his legacy as statesman during the second. Freshly elected by his party and now in his final term, the president may be able to act with more boldness. But boldness, more frequently than not, also requires sacrifice. For this Zuma will have to seek core support that will stand by him through thick and thin.  

To galvanise such support from his countrymen and women at this juncture is, however, not going to be that easy. The immediate prospects of many citizens look bleak. South Africa remains caught up in pedestrian post-recession growth, and the 2.5 per cent estimated expansion of our GDP in 2012 is far from enough to make a meaningful dent in existing levels of social deprivation. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, particularly amongst young people, and pre-recession job losses have not been regained. Globally the short- to medium-term forecast for more favourable circumstances to address this triple complex of poverty, inequality and joblessness, is not encouraging, and at home petrol , electricity  and, inevitably, also food price hikes will serve to further exacerbate the material anxiety that many live with.

As it looks forward to the next twelve months, the deeper concern for the Zuma’s administration must be the impact that these circumstances have had on the cohesion with which our society functions. Material deprivation has, since the country’s political transition, exerted pressure on social relations between citizens, and between citizens and the state, but never during this period have these strains been laid as bare as they have over the past two years. Its most apparent manifestation has been on the street level, where protest action – often with disregard for established dispute resolution mechanisms and the rule of law – has escalated. Yet, a more potent consequence has been the fragmentation that has occurred at leadership (or elite) level between, and within, the major stakeholder groups of business, labour and government.  

The Marikana massacre not only showed up the deep rifts between these constituencies, but also highlighted seemingly intransigent positions held by stakeholders at opposing ends within each. This has made the search for common ground infinitely more complex. Since former president Thabo Mbeki first introduced William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” to our political discourse in his 2006 State of the Nation address, analysts have ceaselessly speculated about whether “the centre can hold” under the weight of the country’s multiple developmental challenges. But under the current conditions, characterised by the growing diffusion of stakeholder interests, and the intransigence with which they have been defended, defining the centre has become increasingly complex. 

Business’ relationship with government is currently at a low, but even amongst itself it has failed to speak with one voice. After the Black Management Forum (BMF), unhappy with a perceived ability to transform, ceded its membership of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) and reconstituted the Black Business Council (BBC) that was disbanded with the creation of Busa in 2003, historical racial lines have been redrawn within this constituency.

The labour movement face similar challenges. The emergence of more militant unions, like the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in the mining sector, has challenged the hegemony of the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu's) largest union affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which may have implications for the leverage that the governing African National Congress (ANC) has over organised labour, through its tripartite alliance with Cosatu.

Even government, apart from its relationship with the aforementioned stakeholders, have struggled in creating coherence within its own machinery. In the 2011 Transformation Audit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Neva Seidman-Makgetla, a former official in the Department of Economic Development pointed out how the government policy agenda gets hamstrung by incongruent priorities and conflicting vested interests, and concluded that: “Given this institutional fragmentation, it was easy for policy-makers to end up representing, not the majority in the democratic sense, but rather their key stakeholders.” Some would argue that in 2012 this was amplified by the ANC’s Mangaung Conference, where internal factionalism at times may have spilled over into the terrain of governance.

Zuma’s challenge, but also that of the broader body politic, is to reconstitute and consolidate the centre. To believe that his Mangaung victory did just that would be a mistake. It may have helped, but is far from enough. The degree to which both the Marikana and De Doorns uprisings showed up the state’s constrained capacity to persuade without force, should be proof enough. This should not only highlight the problem of the state, but also that leadership of business and labour, because it affects everybody. As such, the debilitating fragmentation – even antagonism – that one senses at present amongst and within key policy constituencies is poisonous and something that we can least afford at a juncture where domestic and global circumstances require greater unity in purpose.  

To lay blame solely at government’s door is disingenuous, and ignores the significant power that is still wielded by labour and business. It also discards the internal divisions within the latter two, which firstly, keeps them from representing their constituencies, but secondly dilutes their potential impact on a national level. However, what we should expect from government is to exercise its convening power to forge a common and coherent national agenda.

And this is what makes tonight the moment for Zuma to seize. It is widely expected that the National Development Plan (NDP) will be one of the central tenets of his speech. Conceived during his presidency in response to calls from across society for a national document that outlines government’s thinking about the medium- to long-term future, the NDP seems to be one of the few issues where opinion amongst the major stakeholders converge. Make no mistake, some very hard battles are still going to be fought about its finer details, but for now it offers something for everyone to hold onto – a vision beyond a testing present.

Another theme that is likely to be addressed and linked to the NDP, as a future-orientated document, is the position of young people in the economy. Even though the dominating national narrative about young people has become one that is characterised by the fear of a ‘ticking time bomb’, parents and families across all social divides still hope and aspire for their young. During 2011 the IJR conducted a series of national focus group interviews and enquired from a cross-section of citizens what their greatest concern about South Africa was. By far, the single most prevalent response was the future of ‘my child’ or ‘my children’. Clearly this is one of those rallying points around which policy elites within the various sectors, but also ordinary citizens can rally. Strong pronouncements on issues, such as the youth wage subsidy and teaching as an essential service, in recent weeks therefore bode well in regard.

But words will have to be turned into concrete deeds, and for that to happen, clear, realistic and measureable targets will have to be forthcoming tonight, particularly in relation to the implementation of the NDP and, by extension, the position of young South Africans. This would not only signal clear commitment, but can potentially also become a first step towards a reinvigorated Zuma presidency that solidifies a reputation as one that is driven by action. Zuma would, however, be the first to recognise that the magnitude of social change required cannot be the responsibility of government alone. And for this reason we should hope that business and labour, and indeed also the broader civil society, should set aside partisan interests and work on the task ahead.

Written by Jan Hofmeyr, head of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s Policy and Analysis Unit, and editor of the Transformation Audit (to be launched on February 20).
Follow him on Twitter: @janihofmeyr



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