Let's hope Zuma surprised us

Did President Jacob Zuma offer a clear, persuasive and insightful analysis of the state of the nation and how a new social compact could and would be forged?  (The Times)

Did President Jacob Zuma offer a clear, persuasive and insightful analysis of the state of the nation and how a new social compact could and would be forged? (The Times)

Whichever bright spark it was who decided that the president's State of the Nation address should move from 11am on a Thursday morning to 7pm in the evening did not have the interests of this newspaper and its deadlines in mind, let alone those of its columnists.

So, I write entirely blind as to what was contained in last night's speech. And, determinedly putting aside a snobbish instinct to deride the president's faltering delivery, ask: How, in the cold light of the morning after, should we assess it? What should we have been looking for? What reasonable expectations should we have had for it? In other words, what ­indicators should we apply in seeking to judge it?

This is not such an easy task, quite apart from the deadline problem. For what Jacob Zuma says and what he means and does are two entirely ­separate universes.

Hence, all that can really be done is to take the wily ANC leader's words at face value and then hope for the best.

And in the case of this particular politician, one's expectations are already pretty low. Although his addresses have been improving year on year since his disastrous first effort in 2010, when the assembled ranks of the ANC grimaced and lowered, as one, their eyes to the floor in embarrassment, they are never things of great rhetorical beauty.

Last year, at least and at last, there was a sense of a strategic focus, with the emphasis on the strategic infrastructure projects as the central driver of job creation and growth and the central pivot of the state's intervention in the economy.

Presidential infrastructure
So, the first question one should be asking this Friday morning is: Did the president provide enough information about the implementation of the projects to suggest that they are on track and will be making a decisive difference to the economy sooner rather than later?

There is evidence that the presidential infrastructure co-ordinating commission that was established 18 months ago and is being led by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and his staff has carefully laid sound foundations. But Zuma needs to have offered convincing evidence that this planning process has gone further than simply articulating a "storyline" for the projects, that the shovels are being readied to enter the ground, so to speak, and that real, desperately needed new jobs are about to be created.

The second indicator relates to the national development plan (NPD). A year ago it was a work in progress. Now it has not only been approved by Cabinet – after a somewhat difficult tussle – but, perhaps more importantly, its political status has also been elevated at the ANC's national conference in Mangaung. Zuma needs to have explained clearly the role that the plan will play in the government of the country from now on, both "upwards" and "downwards".

Critics of the plan complain, among other things, that it does not provide a sufficiently precise and clear strategic vision. Reading it, they say, does not allow you to walk away from it saying: "Ah yes, now I get it: we must do X, Y and Z to succeed as a nation." Instead, they say, it contains too many recommendations and fails to grasp the nettle of the main issues of political economy that inhibit South Africa's ability to grow its economy sustainably and competitively.

By "upwards", I mean, therefore, that last night, Zuma needs to have translated the national development plan not just to his 7pm South African audience but also to an army of anxious international investors and analysts who are inclined to think that this is a government without clarity of purpose and without a firm hand on the tiller.

These over arching national strategic objectives might be about fixing the national emergency that is education; or identifying the key industrial mechanism by which productive employment will be stimulated, perhaps through creative land ownership reform or smallholding farming schemes; or the identification of a key commodity in which South Africa is strategically especially blessed, setting out a global stall to be the market leader in that field; or even, more modestly, but no less importantly, measures to incentivise youth employment, objections from political allies notwithstanding.

Implementation process
Instead, I suspect that Zuma will have used the upcoming Brics summit in Durban (where else?) to talk up South Africa and its role in the world – not a bad thing in itself, but no substitute for a clear articulation of national strategic interests.  

By "downwards", I mean, accordingly, that Zuma should also have explained how the national development plan and its contribution to the macro strategic objectives of the nation would be translated into policy, line-function ministry by line-function ministry. He was required to convince us all that he and his presidency have the political clarity of purpose to ensure that ministers play nicely and come fully to the NPD party and that it will be possible to align this implementation process neatly enough with the department of performance, monitoring and evaluation's outcomes-based approach to presidential oversight of government delivery.

A State of the Nation address has to look backwards as well as forwards. So, the president ought to have been frank with his audience about last year's travails, including – and especially – the tragedy of Marikana and its underlying causes, rather than hiding in cowardly fashion behind the Farlam commission.

A third and final indicator to apply when analysing last night's speech, therefore, is whether or not Zuma offered a clear, persuasive and insightful analysis of the balance of forces and, taking account of the political economy of the country, how a new social compact could and would be forged.

Hopefully, you were not holding your breath waiting for this one, because this is a president who is more inclined to patronise his audience with shallow analytical elision rather than show leadership of the sort that is so urgently needed.

Emboldened by his masterful consolidation of power within the ANC, or inspired by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, maybe Jacob Zuma surprised us all last night. He is, after all, a very surprising man.

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