State of Zuma better this year

Most presidents, if they were really honest about it, would say this is the most painful part of their work—you are expected to look on while parliamentarian after parliamentarian takes the podium to have his or her say about your State of the Nation address, with the opposition trying to nit-pick every fault it can and your party's MPs trying to suck up and tell you how wonderful you are.

For President Jacob Zuma, however, it was a moment to make up for his mistakes of last year and also the oversights in his address last week. But first he had to sit through two days of deliberations, with nothing to distract him on his desk. His Cabinet members were less discreet—whipping out their BlackBerrys and their brand new iPads every time an opposition member took to the podium.

The State of the Nation debate is the highlight of the year for many MPs, especially those who are chosen to speak in the debate. According to ANC insiders, the process to choose speakers starts in early January and the strategy is to break down the speech given by the president and "make superior arguments" about why his ideas are good and his solutions workable.

Some speakers get chosen for strategic reasons, like Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa to represent the ANC Women's League, where she serves as a spokesperson, and Mduduzi Manana, who is a leader in the ANC Youth League, to accommodate the youth.

Others are chosen for their knowledge on subjects, like Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who were given speaking spots because of Zuma's focus on job creation and education during the address.

The last speaker of the day—the sweeper—is considered to be the most important person in the debate and that is where the party puts its brightest mind.

"That is where you put your sharp shooters, who can rebut all the allegations that were made during the course of the debate and end it off with the strong statement," an official who is involved in the process said.

Better time
For the ANC, this job fell to Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor. But she was no match for the DA's 30-year-old Lindiwe Mazibuko, who was the only Democratic Alliance MP who got the ANC benches to wake up and take note.

But despite the long-windedness of DA leader Athol Trollip and the theatrics of Independent Democrats leader Joe McGluwa, Zuma still had a much better time than he did last year.

The debate last year was dominated by "Babygate", after he had fathered a child out of wedlock with the daughter of his friend soccer boss Irvin Khoza, and a weak State of the Nation address.

Even ANC members were confused about whether they should support their president. This year, a comment by co-operative governance and traditional affairs portfolio chairperson Lechesa Tsenoli that "you can't be half pregnant" made Zuma burst out laughing, which really wouldn't have gone down as well last year.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi told the house that he met Zuma at the presidential residence in Durban where Zuma asked him to step down as leader of the IFP. Buthelezi took it badly, but clearly Zuma did too and did not mention him in the reply.

But it was not all fire and brimstone from the opposition benches. Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder, who happens to be a deputy minister of agriculture, again bragged about his access to Cabinet committees (deputy ministers are not part of the Cabinet). Zuma's own MPs had only good things to say about his speech.

There were the ones who were glad to have survived the Cabinet reshuffle, like Molewa, who couldn't congratulate Zuma enough for a "wonderful speech".

The fact that Zuma failed to mention the all-important climate change conference due to be held in Durban in December did not seem to bother her. But in his reply, Zuma made up for two key oversights in his original address.

He devoted several paragraphs to the climate change conference. He also responded to criticism about his silence about former president Thabo Mbeki and thanked Mbeki for "the contribution he made to finding a solution in Sudan". For Zuma, this debate was illuminating in seeing who his friends and his enemies are and in showing that he can learn from his mistakes.

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