A country, not a debating school

2012-02-04 09:23

Our goal is clear. We want to have a country where millions more South Africans have decent employment opportunities, which has a modern infrastructure and a vibrant economy, and where the quality of life is high.

President Jacob Zuma
State of the nation address (2011)

If only our president would keep to the three components of this goal in his yearly state of the nation address, it would give a fulcrum to the occasion and allow for true assessment.

Instead, his past three addresses have been quick-fire trips through a range of projects and themes.

At the end, the president is breathless, the nation none the wiser and the state of the state a bit of a mystery.

The same thing happened when Jacob Zuma made the centenary speech at Mangaung – it was like a 100-year-long tick box of great historic moments, by the end of which even the most party faithful had deserted the stadium.

It would be easy to blame the generally soporific content of the president’s great addresses on his speech writers, but the yearly state of the nation address reflects a much greater malaise and that is in the DNA of Zuma’s leadership style.

To understand this, you have to spool back to the ANC conference at Polokwane in 2007 when Zuma triumphed over Thabo Mbeki.

For those of us who drank the Kool-Aid then, the narrative was that he would be a welcome return to the way things should be in South Africa and in the ANC, the party that governs the country with a large majority.

Our zeitgeist seeks more consultation where decisions are canvassed and public opinion taken seriously.

This is the outcome of the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, when the culture of struggle was defined by the deep, democratic traditions of the trade unions and liberation organisations of the United Democratic Front.

Mbeki, a cerebral man of exile, serially left the Tripartite Alliance’s participant organisations out of key decisions. He thought he knew more than his nation, as was revealed in his dangerous dalliance with Aids dissidents.

For many people, Zuma promised an era of openness and debate. As many leaders have found out, what works in one era does not work in another and so it is that our president’s greatest strength has become his greatest weakness.

He runs the country like a debating school where all views are given equal weight and space. The outcome for the state of the nation address is that each project and theme gets equal space.

But if Zuma is true to the national goals he set out, jobs, a vibrant economy and modern infrastructure should undergird the address.

But because of the governance-as-debating-school model, there is no clarity on any of these imperatives, as competing interests have been allowed to run rampant without clear and decisive action.

The R787 billion infrastructure budget is mired in policy indecision, and three years after its tabling in a state of the nation address the economic effect of such a capital injection is not felt.

We send confusing signals on foreign investment and nationalisation because the president allocates equal weight to all views and insists on debating ad infinitum anything tough that needs a decision.

So, almost a year after Massmart’s merger with Walmart was approved, the case is still awaiting resolution by the Competition Tribunal to which three Cabinet ministers dragged the retailing giant.

Zuma has publicly intimated that nationalisation is on the cards and that it is not; he has said that ballooning public sector employment will solve the jobs crisis and that it will not. The list goes on.

When you read Zuma’s previous three state of the nation addresses, another outcome of the debating model of governance is that things take extraordinarily long to complete or even to bring to fruition, like infrastructure spending, and the revitalisation of further education and training colleges. The list goes on.

In 2012, this leadership flaw – the love for the debate over decision – will be made worse as the president will use the year to fight to ensure this cornerstone speech is not his last, as many detractors want it to be. 

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