Litmus test

2008-02-11 00:00

The ceremonial dignity of the Opening of Parliament is seldom ruffled by political controversy. It is the occasion when the head of state reviews the events of the past year (usually highlighting government’s more successful achievements) and plots the course for the year ahead — again with the emphasis chiefly on those promises likely to win most applause. As the members and other dignitaries assembled yesterday, however, the usual air of smug confidence was markedly lacking, and President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address was anticipated with a keenness of interest bordering on anxiety.

The reality is that the nation feels anxious. Overriding all else is the electricity crisis, manifestly the result of the appalling mismanagement by the government of the nation’s material and human resources, and now damaging the economy to the point that a recession threatens. With the power outages uppermost in most minds, a number of other unsettled and unsettling issues may have dropped into the background: continuing crime, chronically inefficient service delivery, rising failure rates in education, unemployment and poverty exacerbated by rising prices, HIV/Aids, inadequate land reform — all calling for more effective government action. Corruption in high places is of increasing concern, with the arms deal not only refusing to go away but spreading its infection ever more widely.

In a situation crying out for strong leadership, as Mbeki stepped up to the podium his position seemed remarkably insecure. He enters the lame-duck phase of his presidency with, at best, only equivocal support from his own party. After a heated succession battle, the ANC not only opted for a controversial new leader in Jacob Zuma, but changed almost its entire leadership team. It is even questionable whether Mbeki will see his presidency run its full term, and, if it does, how his leadership will be affected by decisions on new directions taken by the party at Polokwane and subsequently.

In many minds, then, the question was whether Mbeki, with a reputation for remoteness and denialism, would at this critical moment take the nation into his confidence, really engage with the issues that trouble ordinary people, offer practicable remedies and assert himself as the undisputed leader of the government and head of state. And, as he closed his speech, many of the questions remained unresolved. With his mother present, perhaps the president was more warmly human than usual, but (as his choice to quote from a 19th century English novel about 18th century European affairs showed) the austere intellectual was still very much in evidence. Certainly he did not avoid the crucial issues, but his assurances that all will be well were no more convincing than the usual political platitudes. There were interesting proposals, such as the “business unusual” concept, but not much for immediate and practical implementation other than earlier eligibility for state pensions.

Above all, on the critical matter of the party’s decision to dissolve the Scorpions — a move which many interpret as an attempt by Zuma’s supporters to weaken the hand of the prosecution in the corruption charges against him (and, by extension, other corrupt members of the hierarchy) — Mbeki was ambivalent, speaking only in general terms about revamping the whole criminal justice system. As a litmus test of Mbeki’s resolve on the crucial issues of the last year of his presidential term, this speech gave no clear reading.

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