Party perspectives

2010-02-16 00:00

AS he prepared his State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma­ had two options: to dwell on the current state of affairs and the government’s plans for it, or to speak about an ideal nation and how we could get there. I prefer the latter idea, but I accept his decision to be more focused on the present. In response to this, the alternative political parties and commentators had the choice of picking trivial issues and raising fundamental policy questions that could not be addressed in a speech of this nature in order to suggest that they have brighter ideas for the desired future.

We knew well beforehand that the president would stick close to manifesto priorities, which means alternative parties had ample time to prepare intelligent responses. But they largely concerned themselves with issues we will soon forget.

I hoped that the debate would be about fundamental issues that will face our nation for some time. Ever since I started watching this annual speech in 1999, I have been disappointed by our failure to use the address to stretch the nation’s imagination, pulling and pushing the borders of our vision as presented by presidents.

Just as we have done with speeches before, we have picked small, sometimes peripheral issues and elevated them to issues of national importance. Therefore, as a nation, we may fail to use the speech to begin a debate on deep issues mentioned, suggested or not even covered in the speech. Such a discussion could have happened along with the dominant discourse about personalities, fashion, the president’s personal morality, and so forth.

We need to discuss issues that exercise our minds and give us opportunities to contribute to decisions about the future.

There has been very little debate on this, even by opposition parties for whom intelligent alternative ideas are of such political importance. The Congress of the People’s Mvume Dandala lamented lack of detail across the range of issues raised. Chief Buthelezi and Patricia de Lille echoed this line of commentary. Of course, a large number of other commentators in the media also follow the “detail” line. Those who criticised Thabo Mbeki for giving detail in his addresses instead of laying out the strategic landscape for the coming years want Zuma to do just that.

The gripe about detail suggests that all these actors agree with the president on the broad thrust of the speech or the priorities outlined. I suspect that because the simple policy agenda is hard to disagree with, details are needed because they may point to differences between parties’ tactics. If this is true, then alternative parties and critics criticise Zuma for not giving them ammunition with which to shoot his address down. What serious party or citizens could disagree with the idea of getting basics right in education and health, improving literacy and numeracy, holding ministers to account for their performance or expanding access to housing and land? Hardly any.

De Lille distinguished herself from her peers a bit, not only in her stunning red dress, but also by agreeing with government ideas­. Essentially, the two parties agree on substantive agenda issues in this term of government, even if there may be different ideas about the manner in which the ideas are implemented.

Helen Zille’s statement also makes the government look good as it suggests that the government is so mature politically that it is able to listen and incorporate ideas from the Democratic Alliance into its programme of action. While this also means that the DA has policy ideas that the government finds applicable, unlike its peers on the opposition, the DA’s complaints could be interpreted to mean that it does not quite realise how this could help the party’s effort to position itself as an unassailable alternative to the African National Congress.

The United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa raised an important point about whether or not the government is considering an open discussion on our economic model, given its failure to translate growth into employment and poverty eradication. This is crucial, but was omitted from the address. It is understandable that the president has to defer to the governing alliance to decide on what it wants to do with economic policy, but at Polokwane crucial decisions were made about improving the economy through industrial strategy, looking again at the Reserve Bank mandate and creating an efficient developmental state, among other things. The president could have at least suggested national discourse as part of an effort to adapt to the after­effects of the economic recession.

Our peers like Brazil, India, New Zealand, Mexico and others are evolving models based on their idiosyncratic conditions and lessons from elsewhere. This will assure them a seat among the emerging powers and markets in the long run. We belong in this group today, but we are not guaranteed a place if we don’t maintain our economic strength and grow our political clout. Our exclusion from Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric) last year was an apt warning that our global power status is under threat.

We should avoid seeking to resolve­ service delivery issues so much that we lose our international clout, which we use to attract­ investments and trade. By not emphasising our international role, we may undermine what­ever gains we make on the domestic front.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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