Zuma trips lightly over scandals in Sona debate

President Jacob Zuma made the right noises, all aimed at investors and ratings agencies. (Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

President Jacob Zuma made the right noises, all aimed at investors and ratings agencies. (Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

President Jacob Zuma has replied to two days of fractious debate on his State of the Nation address by utterly ignoring some of the most contentious issues raised but calling for unity, mainly of the economic variety.

On Thursday, in a speech free of interruption by MPs, though not entirely free of heckling, Zuma did not address – or even coyly hint at – Nkandla and the accusations that he had failed in his constitutional duties in handling that scandal.

Also notably absent from Zuma’s speech were the ongoing student protests (which had seen paintings and a bus burned just a short distance from Parliament the day before) and the government’s massive planned nuclear build.

Focusing on the economy, as he had in his State of the Nation speech, Zuma called for unity on:

  • The economy and jobs;
  • The National Development Plan;
  • A response to the drought;
  • Promoting national unity, especially in combating racism; and
  • A general response to the tough times caused by the drought and the moribund economy.

Zuma also called on Parliament to unite in respecting its presiding officers.

“Really, some of us feel very bad when we see the manner in which we portray ourselves,” Zuma said. “When you exercise your right, don’t undermine the right of the next person.”

During the weeklong debate, the chamber saw apparent bans on the words “rubbish” and “factions”. Speaker Baleka Mbete declined to rule on objections to those apparent bans, saying she would do so later because further study of the record was required.

Zuma spent much of the speech discussing the economy, with messages that seemed targeted squarely at foreign investors and ratings agencies.

“High on our agenda is to prevent a sovereign [credit] downgrade,” he said.
“A downgrade would have an adverse effect for all South Africans.”

Zuma said that “stronger measures to restore a sustainable fiscal path have been endorsed at the highest levels of government”. He added that there would be a further “review of certain regulations and laws that impede investment in the economy”, and that “credible plans” would be developed for sectors such as water, energy, transport and food security.

He made no mention of restraining spending on social grants and salaries for civil servants, or plans to bolster tax revenues, all issues that foreign economic watchers have expressed concern about.

Zuma had been criticised for not focusing on education in his State of the Nation speech, and spent a considerable amount of time in his replying speech on early childhood development and basic education. He also departed from his prepared speech to recommend that more pupils should board at schools as “that will change the quality of their lives”.

Schools, he said, should be “peaceful and productive centres of learning”, a sentiment he repeated twice.

But the closest he came to touching on continuing  protests at various university campuses was to urge young people to commemorate the 1976 Soweto uprising “to know where our youth comes from, so that the issues that our youth are looking at and fighting for are informed by where we come from, where we are, where we are heading to”.

Though he did not address nuclear energy in any way, Zuma said his government had committed to “expanding the energy mix and especially the independent power-producer programme, which has proven to be [a] successful partnership with business”.

No economic Codesa for Holomisa

He will not be getting his economic Codesa, President Jacob Zuma told United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa on Thursday, unless opposition political parties first come to an agreement that would in effect see them abandoning their economic policies in favour of those of the ANC.

Holomisa and others have called for an economic version of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations of the early 1990s. But the idea was unworkable, Zuma said. 

“You have an economic policy as UDM. I’m sure other parties have economic policies,” Zuma told Holomisa. 

“Unless parties agree beforehand that we are ready to abandon our policies and have one policy [for] all parties and have one economic system in the country ... but if we were to do that I can tell you we’ll argue from the time we start to the end without an agreement.” 

If the parties couldn’t reach consensus and tried to “see what the majority says then all ANC policies will be passed because we are the majority ... I think that would not be fair,” Zuma said.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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