State of the Nation: Zuma makes all the right noises

The announcement of R19-billion to help with job-creation and the establishment of a relief fund to the tune of R800-million showed SA President Jacob Zuma was putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to the issues that matter most to South Africans—recovering from devastating natural disasters on the one hand and dealing with unemployment on the other.

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State of the Nation address 2011

But as for a grand vision for the country that many craved from Zuma, they were once again disappointed.

Far from the embattled president of last year, Zuma looked confident as he strode into the National Assembly in Cape Town on Thursday evening to address the nation.

In the absence of former president Nelson Mandela, Zuma assured the nation that Madiba was “comfortable” and receiving good medical care—clearly mindful of keeping the country and the world abreast of Mandela’s health condition after his recent bout of respiratory problems.

Zuma, for the first time, went a long way to acknowledge former president Thabo Mbeki, who attended the event for the first time since Zuma became president. Although Zuma declined to mention Mbeki in any part of his speech other than the greeting, he did make a point of mentioning Mbeki’s brainchild the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), as well as the recent secession of the southern Sudan, a process Mbeki steered to its successful conclusion.

Zuma emphasised that 15-million South Africans were dependent on social grants, and announced that children up to 18-years-old would now have access to children’s grants. He warned that a welfare state was not desirable, and that social grants would be “linked to economic activity and community development”, to help beneficiaries become self-supporting.

His promise of a budget deficit of between 3% and 4% in two years’ time will gain him a raft of criticism again from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which feels a budget deficit is necessary for South Africa to achieve its goal of a better life for all.
The ANC slogan was replaced in Zuma’s speech by the ANC’s 2009 election mantra, “working together we can do more”.

Joining the Brics
On the international front Zuma highlighted the achievements of South Africa by becoming a member of the Brazil, Russia, India and China formation, as well as South Africa’s re-election to the United Nations Security Council.

A jobs fund of R9-billion will finance new job creation initiatives, while the Industrial Development Corporation has created a similar fund to the tune of R10-billion. Potential investors will smile at the R20-billion tax allowance that Zuma promised investors willing to spend more than R200-million for new projects and those who make a minimum of R30-million investment in expansion and upgrades.

“The programme will provide an allowance of up to R900-million in tax deductible allowances for new investors and R550-million for upgrades and expansions,” Zuma said.

The burden will also fall on the State Owned Enterprises and development finance institutions to align their programmes more closely to the job creation agenda.

A beneficiation strategy will become part of the official policy of government, “so that we can start reaping the full benefits of our commodities”, said Zuma.

Local govt elections
Switching to local government election mode, Zuma promised security of tenure to 400 000 of the 1,2-million households in South Africa’s 2 700 informal settlements. The provision of water services would also be extended—especially to townships in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo—to the tune of R2,6-billion.

The expanded public works programme will create 4,5-million work opportunities, which is one million more than last year, but while it was a highlight in the speech in 2010, this time it was a side dish to the main meal which is supposed to be more meaningful jobs, although there are still disagreements between the government and trade unions over what constitutes a “decent job”.

In line with the target of inflating the public service by 10%, more police officers and medical professionals are to be employed to provide a better service. The government was also expected to fill all vacant posts and will have to report to Zuma within six months.

A medical faculty will be opened at the Limpopo Academic Hospital to train more doctors, but the African National Congress Youth League’s demands for universities in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga seem to have fallen on deaf ears as Zuma made no other mention of any expansion in higher education facilities.

Zuma steered clear of speaking about the success of the turnaround programme of local government, mindful that the strategy may have painfully little to show for itself.

Zuma also announced R800-million in relief following the recent spate of natural disasters, mainly floods, that have crippled farmers, households and communities.

He called the successful referendum that led to the formation of the new state of South Sudan, calling this a “key African success story”, a reference that made Mbeki smile.

He also said retired cricketer Makhaya Ntini has agreed to be the ambassador for the national census that will take place in October this year.

In the end Zuma made the right noises but left South Africans with the same empty rhetoric that will likely be a cornerstone to the ruling party’s offering during the local government election campaign: “We have achieved a lot, but challenges still remain”.

For the latest news, multimedia and tweets from the State of the Nation Address, see our special report.

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