The state we're in

2010-02-09 00:00

THERE seem to be unprecedented discussions about the state of the nation. They are not limited to anticipating the official State of the Nation Address that President Jacob Zuma will deliver later this week, but increasingly include public opinion about the problems and challenges that this young democracy faces.

The public space is becoming a marketplace of ideas and opinions. It can get very dynamic and interesting, but also staid and depressing. For this reason, the president’s address will be located in juxtaposition with other perspectives in the minds of many citizens. Should he fail to demonstrate that he has listened to the various spasms of the public debate on the state of the government and communities, he will lose his most important audience — the people in their diversity.

This is not to argue that Zuma is obliged to pander to public opinion. I know that the majority is not always right and, therefore, it is the duty of leadership to help shape public opinion rather than merely reflect it. Public opinion is fluid and unscientific. It is too weak to base policy positions on. We learn from countries where there is a constant measuring of public opinion vis-à-vis the government and leaders, that public opinion swings fast and frequently from approval to disapproval. For example, the darling of the United States, Barack Obama, is battling to keep his approval ratings above those of the much-maligned George W. Bush.

The African National Congress had meticulously planned a positive build-up towards the address. This began with the National Executive Committee (NEC) lekgotla that discussed in great detail the programme of action for the entire term of government across the full range of policy areas. The statement released at the end of the lekgotla shows that the NEC is pragmatic in its responses to various policy questions of our time: from economic reform to rural­ development. The date chosen­ for the president’s address is designed to coincide with the release­ from prison of former president Nelson Mandela.

The negative publicity surrounding the Sunday Times’s story that the president has fathered a child out of wedlock and with a friend’s daughter undermines the ANC’s intention to build up positive momentum ahead of the address­. The plan was to incorporate detailed service delivery plans, the iconography of Mandela and the imminence of the ANC’s 100th birthday. Now, public debates­ are dominated by the difficulties faced by municipalities and provincial government with regard to service provision, as well as questions about the president’s personal morality, a flip side of the plan.

It was thus correct for the president to accept that the controversy was no longer a private matter, but had become a matter of public interest. His apology to the nation was courageous, even if forced on him. Of course, a repeat of this behaviour would completely undermine his act of courage.

Having apologised and settled matters with the Khozas, the president will have a less stressful time presenting to the nation (I hope in an upbeat tone) what he and the governing party consider to be keys to unlocking this nation’s potential. Only then would the detail released by the NEC gain political capital in the eyes of the public.

Zuma’s government needs politi­cal capital because the successful implementation of its programme of action will require patience­ on the part of the expectant populace. There are very few quick wins to be had, if any. Turning health and education around is an exercise that will take at least 10 years. The same is to be said about rural development and land reform, or fighting crime and corruption. The task of creating a developmental state with strong planning capability and capacity to deliver the public goods may take even longer. Of course, there must be some outcomes in the short term too. These could include improved levels and quality of services provided, stronger management of health and education facilities, cleaner audits in local­ government, and so forth.

People should be under no illusion that the promises politicians make are about hope and aspirations in the long-term, but their performance should be judged on whether moves are made in that direction rather than whether the actual goals are fully reached. Our strategic goals must be markers on the road to a desired end, the pursuit of which depends on many factors. These goals will be impossible to achieve if the government works alone. Therefore, they should be challenging goals that galvanise members of society to work together to achieve more than could be achieved otherwise.

For this reason again, Msholozi should have one part of his mind on the technical detail of priorities and the other on the visionary stuff about the desired end, namely the conditions of the society we want to create working together. He should acknowledge that the police will not eliminate crime on their own, however robust they become in their conduct. Teachers will not produce the desired results without the active role of parents. Municipal officials and staff will fail to turn this tier of government around without active support from communities.

It is the duty of leadership to take us beyond our current state of affairs, always depressing and unsatisfactory, to a desired brighter end, for great leaders know that to get there requires collective responsibility. If plans fail, we would have failed.

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

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