Nelson Mandela exploited his iconic stature to capture the nation’s attention and imagination. Thabo Mbeki mesmerised the country with his poetic verses, but Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma are neither charismatic orators nor great poets.
Right now, however, the country doesn’t need orators, poets, icons or singers (we all know Zuma can sing) but leaders.
In spite of the style and substance of the leaders’ speeches, for decades the country has faced the same old issues. Some described these as the legacy of apartheid, or what the ANC and Zuma termed the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Under these four democratically elected presidents, the state was unable to transform itself into an efficient machine to drive drastic changes, even though the lives of the majority has improved dramatically since 1994.
For most of South Africans, life is better than under apartheid, as even the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane admitted on Wednesday.
Zuma calls it the “good story”.
But the test for the ANC – and for Zuma in the next five years – is that the majority of the unemployed, poor and economically disempowered are black and the ruling party’s key constituency, whereas the rich maintain and increase their wealth.
This has been compounded by stealing from the public purse despite repeated promises by Zuma and his predecessors to clamp down on rotten state contracts and put a stop to public servants doing business with government.
He pledged on Tuesday that all the law enforcement units “have made notable progress in our quest to combat corruption in society broadly and in the public sector”.
The opposition Democratic Alliance on Wednesday pierced the credibility of this statement by reminding the country that there are still unanswered questions about the dropped criminal charges against Zuma and the security upgrades at his Nkandla home.
At the same time, Zuma and his predecessors never heeded the warnings of the public protector and the Public Service Commission, a watchdog body that has persistently showed the extent of the rot for years.
Despite the country’s transparency laws, Zuma has tried to push through secrecy Bills and has invoked apartheid laws to discourage whistle-blowing.
What will undermine Zuma’s quest for an efficient state is the inability of incompetent leaders to spend money.
The poor management of public institutions such as hospitals and schools has led those who can afford it – including the very same politicians – to shun state-run entities.
For 20 years, the migraine for the ANC’s and the country’s presidents has been how to make the state deliver services efficiently and for the country to attract investors.
For Zuma, Tuesday night should not have been about reinventing the wheel, although he invoked the words “radical”, “change”, “intervention” and “transition” several times. But the speech was a collection of his previous ones and nothing radical, as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema reminded him on Wednesday.
The promise to spend massively on infrastructure, the expanded public works programmes, to tap the potential of small businesses and use public financial institution to “become real engines of socioeconomic development” were part of Mbeki’s apex programmes.
Tuesday night should have been about innovation, strategy, leadership and political will.
Was he innovative enough to uplift the mood of exasperation permeating the nation as expressed by voters who reduced the ANC’s majority and violent protests in the townships?
He was not, if his speech was to be judged by callers to radio stations and social media comments.
Were there any innovative ideas to grow the sluggish economy (he promised 5% in the next five years), reduce unemployment and circumnavigate the complexities of the world economy? Perhaps.
To his credit, he emulated India with the National Planning Commission in charting the country’s vision in 2009.
Still a plan
But the commission’s mission still remains a plan, and opposition leaders slated him for not referring to it in his speech.
His idea of revitalising mining towns (though not new) was somehow innovative. It could, if implemented carefully, create jobs in rural areas, away from saturated and overpopulated big cities.
But was this a magic wand that will save a declining economy, which has lost its number-one spot on the continent? History will be the judge.
His intention to intervene personally in the stormy mining sector should not – as the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa warned on Wednesday – be another public gesture. The country continues to depend on mining for its sustainability, and failure in this sector could bring the economy to its knees.
A chief executive in charge of a troubled company would hone his strategy, leverage its human capital and allocate resources accordingly. Given that SA Inc is facing socioeconomic turbulence, did he sharpen any strategy on Tuesday night?
Fruitless spending and underspending are still a nightmare in struggling provinces and dysfunctional municipalities. A turnaround strategy is desperately needed.
To be fair, Zuma inherited them but his party’s choice of premiers and mayors means his intention to overhaul them will be frustrated.
At least he was applauded for appointing former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who turned around the revenue service, to repair the provinces and local government. But Gordhan’s strategy might be frustrated by politics and the constitutional constraints of concurrent powers.
Mbeki’s Project Consolidate fell flat. Former local government minister, the late Sicelo Shiceka, tried, unsuccessfully, to drive municipalities to work.
But Zuma’s tough talk on municipalities is not complemented by action and tough leadership. He chose political expediency over acting decisively.
By contrast, in the address, he reiterated that he would make sure that his ministers sign performance contracts, and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa warned on Wednesday to “watch this space”.
This sounds like a desire to introduce meritocratic government. But it was already negated in advance by the appointment of lazy allies and chums to key portfolios.
And Zuma’s frequent reshuffles, although he got rid of some of the really bad apples, have been driven by factional, partisan considerations.
Unlike Mandela and Mbeki, Zuma is perceived as a scandal magnet and weak. From Malema to Maimane, the opposition archers were ready for him on Wednesday. And they skewered him.
On the day, Zuma’s senior ministers such as Rob Davies and Lindiwe Sisulu tried to come to his defence and rescue but the opposition leaders managed to trash his presidential esteem in driving their own agendas.
Like many other presidents in a second term, the electorate has fallen out of love with him and his personal scandals have overshadowed his vision.
He has two choices in his second term: crack the whip, prove his critics wrong and leave a memorable legacy (he has nothing to lose), or become a lame-duck president for fear of being recalled by the party (as it did with Mbeki in 2008).
On Tuesday, Zuma appeared, like his predecessor Motlanthe, to be a messenger of the party rather than a leader boldly charting his path and vision. His weakness as a poor orator, his subdued posture because of ill health and the inarticulate delivery of his speech didn’t help him either.
He only managed a giggle when a Freedom Front Plus MP greeted him in Afrikaans – after the president, in his multilingual greeting, omitted die taal.
Lastly, he didn’t show political will in his first term, according to his critics, except that his administration continued and improved on the HIV and Aids front.
So far, education has been another policy letdown. Although Zuma claims his administration opened “one new school a week” in the Eastern Cape last year, many more schools have been closed in other provinces. Some pupils in Limpopo failed to get textbooks, which Judge Jody Kollapen described as “an intellectual genocide”.
Zuma gloated about the impressive enrolment statistics but the assessment of the education system has moved to the quality and substance.
He at least invoked Madiba’s spirit by calling for “a major cleanup” of the country as part of activities to celebrate the late Mandela’s birthday next month.
A “major cleanup” of government could help drive his domestic policy. – Additional reporting by Moshoeshoe Monare and Ina Skosana
It’s déjà vu as Zuma repeats more of the same
When President Jacob Zuma made his maiden State of the Nation speech five years ago, South Africa was in the throes of the financial crisis and a recession. The economy was centrestage, as the government, business and labour took the united step to adopt a framework response to the financial crisis. It was also in this address that Zuma’s administration first focused on infrastructure as a way to reignite economic growth.
Cut to June 2014 and the economy is again the focus. Unlike in June 2009, its trouble is domestically driven and relations between labour, government and business are strained.
Each year since 2009, Zuma has emphasised infrastructure roll-out, but the most fundamental element of this programme, electricity, is largely unchanged. In 2010, Zuma announced the state would establish an independent systems operator to restructure the energy sector, and highlighted Eskom’s existing efforts to build new power plants. Despite extensive work on an independent systems and market operator (ISMO) Bill, it sank in the legislature for reasons that remain unclear.
This week Zuma again announced the “radical transformation” of the energy sector, and plans to finalise the ISMO Bill. Meanwhile, Eskom’s new power plants remain incomplete, and shortly before Zuma began speaking Eskom announced renewed bouts of load shedding. He emphasised state support for nuclear power and shale gas exploration, even though the National Development Plan (NDP) has questioned nuclear energy’s affordability.
Zuma established the presidential infrastructure co-ordinating commission to drive infrastructure, which again featured in his speech this week. Nevertheless, concerns persist that spending on its strategic integrated projects is not happening fast enough.
Policy plans such as the NDP have been features of successive speeches. The government’s selective implementation of the plan, as seen in the energy sector, has raised scepticism that it lacks political buy-in, although alliance partners and private sector analysts have questioned if it can, in fact, be implemented.
Mining has also featured heavily in Zuma’s addresses, but during his first term it was also the sector faced with calls for nationalisation, demands for greater taxation of resources, labour relations tensions and the devastation of Marikana.
Zuma will now lead efforts, begun under former deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, to end strife in the sector. He also announced an interministerial committee to revitalise distressed mining communities.
Dick Forslund of the Alternative Information and Development Centre noted, however, that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a key actor in the dispute, did not agree to the initial talks under Motlanthe. Efforts to improve mining communities are overdue, Forslund said.
Mining companies have received little sanction for failing to improve workers’ living conditions, he added, despite looming community and social compliance deadlines under the Mining Charter this year.
The union could not accept promises of improved living conditions in lieu of a lower wage settlement, Forslund argued. Long-term stability can only be returned to the sector by increasing wages at the expense of profits, he said.
Zuma has, however, scored some political wins over the years. Efforts to address unemployment, especially among the youth, culminated in the introduction of the employment tax incentive scheme in January. He said 133 000 people have already benefited from the scheme. – Lynley Donnelly