It's all ears as South Africans from all quarters await State of the Nation address

3rd June 2009 By: Idasa, an African Democracy Institute

When President Jacob Zuma comes to Parliament on Wednesday to deliver his state of the nation address, he will be under intense scrutiny from all quarters. Not only will the alliance partners be listening carefully to messages regarding economic policy but business will be looking for the message of continuity. Above all, however, citizens will be looking for both leadership and direction from the President. Zuma has the unenviable task of making his first state of the nation address during a recession.

The speech also comes against a backdrop of ambitious election promises and very high expectations. The country is currently witnessing an intense stand-off between the unions and government over public service pay. The trade unions, having come this far and having supported Zuma so loyally are more than ready for the chess game. Thus far, Jacob Zuma has been virtually silent, choosing more often than not to speak through his ministers or often inappropriately, via Luthuli House. It was, curiously, ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe who warned the unions that they could not hold government to ransom. On Wednesday however, citizens want to hear from the President, because the national conversation cannot be confined to the tripartite alliance alone. It will therefore be up to Zuma to outline his priorities and vision for a decent society.

It will be a tricky navigation and Zuma will need to strike a fine balance between sending the right messages to the alliance partners and speaking very directly to ordinary citizens about the state of the nation. Very few ordinary citizens are concerned about the detail of economic policy but they do know where it hurts. If it is so that the average employed South African supports at least 5 others, then the unemployment figures we live with should shock us all. As a society we have become virtually inured to the high levels of unemployment and inequality, forgetting the severe impact the statistics have on social cohesion and the very fabric of our society. So, the country needs to understand what the President's mind is on the way in which the new cabinet structures might enable a creative approach to job creation and service delivery, for instance?

The past 2 weeks have been difficult ones for South Africa. Apart from the economic figures there has been a marked increase in protest action and there are no signs that things are abating. The unions, understanding the importance of this newfound window of opportunity, have thrown down the gauntlet as regards a possible public service strike. Across the country service delivery protests have been taking place amidst high levels of anger from citizens as the treatment meted out to them by the state through poor service delivery and problems of crime and unemployment. The VODACOM listing which was nearly stopped in its tracks, thanks to some ham-handedness from ICASA caused ripples. COSATU is right to have had reservations about the deal but the clumsiness of the regulator, left much to be desired. Taxi operators are threatening to stymie the integrated rapid transport system mooted, predictably through violent protest. Thus far Zuma's modus has been to allow individual ministers to ‘front up' and face the press and deal with concerns.

There are times, however, when the President's voice is needed. In the Western Cape an entirely untenable situation has been allowed to foment. MK veterans have taken to the streets demanding an array of apologies from Premier Helen Zille. That President Zuma is silent when hundreds of men (illegally) dressed in military fatigues march on a provincial legislature, is hopefully not a sign of things to come. The ANC in the Western Cape must learn the ways of constructive opposition. Members of the ANC in the provincial legislature marched alongside the MK veterans indicating a worrying disregard for the democratic process of which they themselves were a part. One suspects though that some part of it is about protecting their own political careers after the ANC's dismal electoral performance. The President should not be silent for it is in the silences that militancy and a lack of accountability breed.

Our country faces many challenges and creative solutions will be necessary if we are to survive the economic down-turn without even greater disruption to our social fabric. In addition, our democratic institutions have been severely damaged, largely as a result of the ANC's own internal battles. President Zuma needs to spell out his plans to restore some of the integrity and functioning of institutions such as the SABC and crucially the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the South African Police Service, still awaiting a new commissioner. He will need to set the tone very directly on issues of corruption. He needs to give us some idea- beyond the ANC platform- of what his vision is for South Africa. What sort of society does he envisage and how will ordinary citizens be drawn into this vision? The speech must be a rallying call. We
can hardly afford a Thabo Mbeki-style ‘business as usual' speech. Zuma inherits a state which is weak and health-care and other services which are seriously lacking. While the Mbeki years focussed on implementation, it hardly succeeded in building a state which was efficient and effective.

Corruption, nepotism, vested interests and Mbeki's own complex views on race and who had the ‘right' to contribute to fixing the country all contributed to the current malaise within the public service. So, Zuma's government cannot be expected to fix it all overnight. Nevertheless, South Africans will want to see a President who leads and who is able to build enough social capital between his government and citizens to steer us through the choppy waters of a recession and a very fragile social compact. It will be a tough ask to harness the dynamism of the body politic into a constructive and creative force.

By: Judith February
This article first appeared in the Cape Argus and The Star on Tuesday, 2nd June.