Address the state of the nation

2015-02-11 06:00

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In ordinary times, the statement might have seemed strange. But these are no ordinary times in South Africa. Strangeness is the new normal.

The statement in question was an assurance from Parliament that this week’s state of the nation address (Sona) by President Jacob Zuma would not be disrupted by Eskom’s power-interruption problems.

Secretary of Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana said: “We have been in discussions with Eskom to make appropriate arrangements to ensure our proceedings can go through without interruption … We have assurances from Eskom that there will not be a power shortage and cut to make sure the events take place.”

He added dryly: “We are in South Africa and I suppose we are not immune to whatever is happening.”

The fact that Mgidlana had to have discussions with Eskom in the first place, then give the nation an assurance the lights would be working on the most important day on the political calendar, speaks volumes about the crisis we are in and the normality that abnormality has become.

Mgidlana went as far as saying he had even asked Eskom about “issues around broadcasting” so South Africans would be able to watch the speech live.

This must have come as a great relief to the millions who have been waiting with bated breath for Thursday, because this year’s Sona is arguably the most eagerly anticipated in ages.

Not because the nation particularly expects gems of wisdom and earth-shattering announcements from President Zuma. No one is that naive.

What everyone is waiting for is the great spectacle that will make them switch from their usual TV fare that day.

It’s a spectacle the president is probably not looking forward to. He must be secretly hoping there’s load shedding on the day, so if the spectacle does occur the visuals are not widely disseminated.

If the spectacle does not take place and everything goes smoothly, this might go down as one of President Zuma’s better state of the nation speeches.

He may still be a mind-numbingly boring orator, but he has grown in confidence since that catastrophic address in February 2010.

In that speech he seemed to be thinking more about his new baby and the pleasant processes that led to its birth than the matters of state he had to deal with.

He fumbled, made mistakes, giggled, stumbled, giggled, fumbled and bumbled his way through the speech.

His elocution has improved vastly since. He now reads more like a Grade 7 pupil than the Grade 4 performances he gave in the early phase of his presidency.

Four more years in power and he might just have us eating out of his hands.

What works to his advantage is that people have such low expectations of him that anything from his mouth that approximates a primary school debating society speech gives us comfort that he’s on an upward curve.

He delivered his speech at the ANC’s birthday celebrations with a tone of authority. Yes, he blundered and said some cringeworthy stuff in his off-the-cuff moments, but this is Zuma we are talking about. He will always do that. This is who he is.

What should concern us more about this week’s speech – provided the spectacle does not occur – is what he will emphasise and prioritise on the agenda.

Besides his primary school diction, the problem with his previous speeches has been their lack of focus.

They have been laundry lists of tributes, achievements, status updates and many promises. In none of them was there a sense of the nation’s priorities at that moment – in dealing with the country’s crises and in projecting forward.

This week he can bring his laundry list, but he must be aware that top of mind for South Africans will be critical issues he cannot gloss over and give bland assurances about. No one will believe him if he plays the same scratched vinyl record he has played in the past few years.

He has to confront the energy crisis head-on and with brutal honesty – not give glib promises that seek to pacify an anxious population.

If he tells us the criminal justice system is in good shape, he will be laughed out of town.

South Africans know the system is being eroded daily by President Zuma and some of his lieutenants. He will have the task of telling the nation how he plans to unravel a mess that is his creation.

On the economy and job creation he will have to do more than just repeat last year’s undertakings about growth-stimulating initiatives, youth-absorption measures and repeating the tired mantra that “South Africa is open for business”.

That is yet another scratched record.

In short, the president must deliver a speech that matters, not one that just ticks the boxes.

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