Just fix the damn pumps, Mr President

2012-02-11 14:02

Midway through President Jacob Zuma’s speech, on page 11, he said something that made me jump up. “That’s it,” I thought. “THAT is his problem right there.”

President Zuma was talking about an appeal he received from a citizen, Mmatsheko Pine, from Ngobi near Hammanskraal. He quoted from the email: “The area has been without water for the past two years. There are water pipes installed but the problem is said to be pressure to pump water. Could your office kindly assist with the powers that be?”

And then the president said: “I have asked the minister of water and environmental affairs to investigate
this matter with a view to finding an urgent solution.” The intended message was presumably: I, Jacob Zuma, take this problem so seriously I have raised it at Cabinet level. It was meant to make our hearts soar, but it made mine sink.

Why raise this matter, on this important occasion, just to say: “We’re looking into it?”The fact that this was the president’s solution?– we’ll look into it?– encapsulates what frustrates many people, including ANC supporters. All too often, we make institutions of our indecision, creating comfort zones for those who can’t or won’t do their work.

Much more maddening was the golden opportunity that was missed.Imagine if President Zuma had said: “We dispatched water engineers to Ngobi and the water is now flowing. To maintain the pumps we have created a new post, which we will fill from our list of unemployed graduates.”

And then imagine this: “Mmatsheko Pine is with us today,” he says and the TV cameras cut to her briefly.
And as the House applauds, President Zuma says: “I want to commend Sis Mmatsheko for her commitment. This is what we mean by working together to build a better life for all.”

A magical moment for the price of an air ticket to Cape Town and a comfortable hotel room. And yet government communicators who spend handsomely on advertising campaigns – and might do so if there was a cholera outbreak in Ngobi – lacked the imagination to think of this. It seems that the inclusion of the nation in the state of the nation process, via Twitter and Facebook and email, is not there to shape the speech but merely to decorate it.

The concerns of Portia Mrwetyana of Bekkersdal were highlighted in the 2011 speech after her Facebook post – and yet as e.tv revealed, nothing has changed for her since.

Moving the speech to the evening was a wonderful move because it said to our people: the president wants to talk to you. But the way it was written excluded them profoundly.
We get numbers, numbing numbers – the bad numbers shrink encouragingly and the good numbers grow. Of course numbers matter but the speechwriters take no trouble to explain what they mean. We can measure government’s work and the president’s promises. But we cannot feel the change, touch it, picture it.

We hear that 360 000 jobs were created. Great. So why not take three lines and 45 seconds to introduce us to Lindiwe Sithole, whose months of jobless frustration was ended when a new clothing factory opened outside Durban, thanks to new local content regulations?

(And, by the way, she is also with us in Parliament tonight, sitting alongside Mmatsheko Pine.)
In the build up to the address, people talked about President Zuma’s stiff delivery style. But the real problem is that the people who prepare his message are giving him very little to work with.

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