What we need to hear from the president

2012-02-09 00:00

It’s that time of the year again, when President Jacob Zuma steps up to the podium in the National Assembly chamber. He will deliver his third state of the nation of address to both Houses of Parliament and the millions of South Africans who will watch the prime time speech, from the comfort of their sofas and arm chairs.

Ideally it’s an opportunity to share with the nation the government’s plans for the year and to commit to quantifiable goals, while also reflecting on the successes and failures of the past year

Given the president’s past performances it’s not a stage that he occupies with ease and with two years left of his term there are expectations that he should up his game.

Which is why the president should ditch the five issues that more than likely will dominate his address tonight, and focus instead on those that require leadership.

So skip the following Mr President:

• THE ANC’S CENTENARY: Everybody knows about it, and after his drawn-out speech in Bloemfontein everybody knows Zuma’s opinion about it.

We want to hear your counsel as statesman, Mr President, not as party politician. Move on.

• SA’S LEADERSHIP ROLE IN AFRICA: It’s a myth. The fact of the matter is that they don’t like us, as Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s failed campaign for the African Union Commission presidency showed. Rather, carefully examine the reasons for this.

• SMALL BUSINESS: Since 2001 every state of the nation address has seen an undertaking to “make it easier for small business to do business”. Announce genuine measures, or leave it alone.

• CORRUPTION: Undertakings to eradicate corruption, without saying exactly how. Be specific or leave it alone.

• VAGUENESS: Announcements with the promise that ministers will provide the details in their budget speeches. It never happens. Everyone now knows it’s an evasion mechanism. Provide the details — if they do, in fact, exist — yourself, Sir.

This last point is one of the core problems of the Zuma presidency.

One doesn’t know what the president is thinking and whether he as a leader has his own preferences. He may be a great reconciler, but is not a decision-maker. As a leader he has to make decisions. He does not have to wait for everyone’s input, indaba-style, before summarising a consensus.

Focus rather on a few genuine concerns and make your views clear, Mr President.

These are the real issues that require leadership and which should be the focus of your speech:

• JOB CREATION: Rather than make loose promises about 500 000 jobs, Zuma could briefly tell us why nothing has come of those promises and what has changed since then.

The government’s flagship policy, the “new economic growth path”, depends on job creation, but does not explain how the tension between the concept of “decent work” (roughly that each position should have perks) and the cost of employment will be tackled.

Unemployment figures cannot improve if the cost of employment is not lowered and labour laws made more supple. At the same time, exploitation of the defenceless poor must be combated. Zuma should be more definite about this.

• NATIONALISATION: The gold price remains steady at about $1 700 (R12 800) an ounce, but there is precious little capital investment in the country’s gold mines, potentially a magnet for direct foreign investment and job creation.

The reason is the loose talk about nationalisation, supertax and other ideas that investors will perceive as punitive measures.

It is as though the ANC thinks people are too stupid to see the contradiction between ministers speaking against nationalisation on one hand and ANC hotheads speaking approvingly about it when addressing cheering ANC crowds.

Well, people are not that stupid, and neither, certainly, are investors.

As long as the perception exists that only a few cool heads in the cabinet stand between South Africa’s prosperity and populist disaster, the country will not attract comprehensive investment. The president would do well to advance a reasoned standpoint with a strong statement of his own position, and stop prevaricating.

• EDUCATION: The national development plan drawn up by a team under Trevor Manuel was adopted by the ANC’s national executive committee as a policy framework guideline.

It contains two easily implementable and sensible proposals that can be put into immediate effect if Zuma would be man enough to withstand strong pressure from a key partner.

The proposals are that teachers should regularly be tested on the subjects they teach, and that school principals should be held accountable for their schools’ results, with due account being taken of a school’s location and the socio-economic challenges it faces.

These are naturally good ideas, and naturally the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union will resist them because, in the context of the ANC leadership struggle, it is pro-Zuma.

Will Zuma place quality education above political interest? Or will he ignore it, as one has become accustomed to expect?

• LAND REFORM AND FOOD SECURITY: This is the part of the government’s policy that works least best.

It is in fact a total failure, mainly because of the state’s own bungling and corruption.

There is an inherent contradiction in government policy, namely the tension between land reform and food production.

Because the government follows a communal model, rather than a market-oriented production model, for the redistribution of land, the policy cannot work anyway, even if bungling and corruption were completely eradicated.

Moreover, the time really has come for the ANC to define what it means by the ideal that 30% of arable land should be owned by black people.

Does this include state-owned land, municipal land, urban land, Ingonyama Trust land and commercially purchased farm land?

Where is the 30% located? Failing specifics, it becomes as difficult to nail down as the Conservative Party’s “volkstaat” idea back in the day — pure illusion. When will the land audit be completed?

These are key questions around which the ANC keeps stirring up ill feelings.

Furthermore, next year will mark a hundred years since the introduction of the terrible Native Land Act.

Will Zuma use the opportunity to remove the beam from his own government’s eye, blame the past, or ignore the crisis with vague references? One’s money is on the third option, but one hopes for the first.

• CORRUPTION AND TENDERS: Rather than the usual vague promises, the president could consider three possible policy changes.

The first, contained in the national development plan, is that public servants may not have any additional income, or that it be strictly regulated. The second is to declare every tender procedure open, as happens in Cape Town. Corruption is then inherently impossible. The third is to continue disciplinary action when people resign from their posts, so that guilty parties will always pay.

• CONSTITUTIONALITY: Growing indications that the government sees the Constitution as a policy obstacle rather than as an ideal is a worrying thing.

Examples are the ANC government’s attacks on media freedom and the judiciary.

If the president appreciates the dangers, he will use this state of the nation address specifically to end the attacks on the media and the judiciary.

Should he fail to do that, then the belief that he, his party and his government are trying to bend the letter and spirit of the Constitution to the point of ignoring it, will gain more credibility.

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