In his first State of the Nation address it was obvious that President Jacob Zuma had, owing to the dire economic climate South Africa finds itself in, little to offer.
His speech was full of promises to stem job losses, fight crime and improve the lives of people, but provided little in the way of measurable targets or budget allocations.
The speech took place on a rainy, grey winter’s day in Cape Town, which was perhaps an apt environment considering the reality the new president faces now that he is properly settled as the country’s first citizen.
The issue of job creation featured prominently in Zuma’s address, with details on how the bloodbath of job losses could be stemmed in an economic climate that is far from rosy.
Zuma did not present any large-scale bailout plans because the fiscus does not allow for large chunks of cash to be injected into selected industries. He announced that a “training layoff” would be introduced, which would give workers a period in which to be reskilled rather than retrenched. The government would also engage the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to help employers in financial distress to find alternatives to retrenchments.
While Zuma boasted that the expanded public works programme (EPWP) would create four million job opportunities by 2014, these would not all be the “decent work” that the African National Congress’s (ANC) alliance partners are urging the ruling party to create. Jobs created as part of the EPWP are mostly temporary and are aimed at giving the unemployable an opportunity to build skills in order to find work elsewhere once the project is complete.
The speech contained no word on the extension of the child grant to children up to 18 years of age — a commitment from the ANC — although Zuma admitted “social grants are the most effective form of poverty alleviation”. He was, however, quick to point out that grants would increasingly be linked to economic activity, but state grants currently are only aimed at the most vulnerable groups in society, including children and the disabled, who are generally exempted from economic activity anyway.
The government would rely heavily on the R787-billion that former finance minister Trevor Manuel set aside for the next three years to build economic and social infrastructure, to create jobs and improve the livelihoods of people.
This would, according to Zuma, be used to build schools, improve public transport and provide housing and water.
Cloud of economic gloom
In a bid to dampen lofty expectations of the new administration, he warned that the economic downturn would “affect the pace at which our country is able to address social and economic challenges”.
He set no targets for land reform and repeated the targets for crime reduction that former president Thabo Mbeki introduced — reducing crime by 7% to 10%.
Although he promised more detectives and prosecutors, he gave no numbers and refrained from saying how much money the government would be willing to spend on fulfilling this commitment.
He paid scant attention to the looming strike action being planned by certain sectors of workers, including doctors.
“We are also paying urgent attention to the issues of remuneration of health professionals to remove uncertainty in our health services,” was all he said about the threat by doctors in the public sector to down tools.
In tough times we only have each other to rely on, Zuma seemed to say in his insistence on the building of national pride and furthering the aim of building a common national identity and patriotism. He pledged that the national anthem, flag and other national symbols would be promoted so that children would know “what it means to be South African citizens”.
Zuma’s first big presidential moment was overshadowed by the cloud of economic gloom and he had to steer his presidential address carefully to ensure that the reality of it did not dampen the enthusiasm in the ruling party to create a better life for all.