Sunshine polish and survivalism

2014-02-18 10:00

Anyone who expected a comedy show from President Jacob Zuma on Thursday night would have been sorely disappointed.

Zuma’s state of the nation address was not one of those cringeworthy performances we have become accustomed to – there were none of the customary podium gaffes we have come to expect from Number 1.

There was no fodder for the social-media junkies to create viral postings about and no trending tweets.

Instead, we got what seemed to be a well-rehearsed speech which, while short on news and excitement, was decent on delivery.

It was a far cry from the disastrous 2010 state of the nation address, which was only memorable for the hilarious bits.

The only funny bits this time were in the audience.

There was the ridiculously dressed Malusi Gigaba, who thought he would engender confidence in SAA’s future by turning up in a pilot’s uniform, a scary Tina Joemat-Pettersson who looked like a zombie mannequin and Lindiwe Mazibuko bursting out of a wedding dress.

There was the unseemly sight of the four First Ladies sitting side by side and not uttering a word to one another but competing wildly when it came to the breaks for applause.

Then there was Cyril Ramaphosa’s wife jealously watching the big-screen images of MaKhumalo Zuma walking on the red carpet and probably thinking that five years was too long to wait.

So if you wanted entertainment, it was to be found in Parliament’s public gallery and not on the podium.

This year, Zuma did not go out to make earth-shattering pronouncements or inflated promises.

He was actually quite presidential.

He used his authority to cajole mining companies and unions to put the country first and not retrench or strike on a whim.

He dealt with the issue of violent protests and the need for South Africa to be introspective about its damaged psyche.

He was firm on the centrality of the National Development Plan for South Africa’s future, sending a clear message to the left that there was no turning back on its implementation.

With just under three months to go before the nation’s fifth general elections, Zuma delivered a campaign speech.

Critics may be scathing about the use of the platform for this purpose, but Zuma could justifiably adjust his glasses with his middle finger and tell them to grow up.

In any democracy, the advantages of incumbency entail using national occasions to your advantage as long as it is not overt.

It is what is known in football as a home-ground advantage.

So on Thursday evening, Zuma rose to tell us South Africa had a “good story to tell” – a story of a country that,?just 20 years ago, was an ugly and oppressive dictatorship but is today a vibrant democracy in which the lives of citizens have been transformed.

It was a flowery speech that sought to paint a picture of dramatic progress under an ANC government and also sought to give us hope of better things to come.

But it was also a survival speech – a Zuma survival speech.

Just like his speech at the launch of the ANC’s election manifesto last month, the state of the nation address celebrated the achievements of

the past 20 years but emphasised the achievements of the past five years.

This is a theme coming through strongly in the ANC’s messaging of late. The message is the ANC has done fabulous things for the people of South Africa over two decades and has done even more fantastic things for them in the past five years.

In short, this message says Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki may have been great, but the current president is the real deal.

The Zuma years have been South Africa’s glory years.

Zuma badly needs this messaging because the reality is the exact opposite. For reasons that need no elaboration, the mood in the country is arguably at its lowest since South Africa achieved freedom, and the public’s attitude towards the administration is decidedly negative.

The president is not being taken seriously by his subjects and survives purely on the popularity of his party. And even within his party, he is tolerated rather than respected.

This explains the emphasis on the achievements over the past five years, even if the foundations were laid during the Mbeki administration.

So as the election race heats up, be prepared for more noise about the 2009-2014 glory years under the leadership of the finest president we could ever have hoped for.

Makhanya is editor at large

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