The State of the Nation has Changed Little

2016-02-13 20:11

In the week when South Africans and others interested in what becomes of South Africa in times of these transitions happen, the state of the nation is expected to be expressed by government through president Jacob Zuma. But can the government and Zuma really do justice to this?

In the week of the SONA, many expected Zuma to speak about the immediate problems that we contend with - the drought problem, the demand for free access to higher education in 2016, the developments on Nkandla matter following arguments in the Constitutional Court, the reasons for the firing of Nhlanhla Nene from the finance portfolio in the national cabinet, the solutions to labour issues and such questions. We even expected the president to tell us that the economic situation is dire this year owing to domestic and international factors.

People, especially those who comment in the mass media, also expected government to outline a plan on what will be done to improve the state of the country economically, socially and politically. It is thought that it is the duty of government to lift the country up out of its difficulties and turn the negative mood into a positive energy to change conditions for better. Government was expected to unveil a plan on how to woe investors.

Governments are elected to help people improve their lot. They have the mandate to use policy instruments, legal frameworks and dialogue in order to cause positive developments in society. They are duty bound to deliver certain basic services essential for people to live well and for the country to function, from water to sanitation to communications Infrastructure.

But governments are inadequate for the task we often expect of them. They are not able to understand all the problems that we suffer and may not have all the wisdom of solutions to be had. Yet, we have learned to expect them to do these two essential tasks. We have learned to over-estimate the wisdom and abilities of government. Especially because governments handle our monies as tax payers, we demand that for this reason, government must understand quite fundamentally our problems and lead solve them.

We are often wrong. Governments are as good as the quality of citizens that mandate them. It is citizens who must understand the problems of the country and contribute significantly to solving them. It is citizens who govern. The constitution of the new South Africa is premised on the Freedom Charter proclamation that "The People shall govern", thus ending the old tradition of oligarchy and the rule by small elite supposed to know all and have all the ability.

Too much faith in a government cedes too much power to government and leaves too little power in the hands of citizens. Dictatorships have often come about because of the amount of deference citizens have shown to big individuals and strong governments. The people have enticed leaders into dictators. Once given so much deference, governments assume their ability to think on behalf of the people and solve their problems, even through palliatives.

Even in our case, we see a lot of faith in government as an idea transferred to the specific government that we have. Our anger at its mistakes, failures and wrong conduct arise because we have placed too much hope in it. Disappointment is in direct proportion with our expectations. It is our expectations that heighten our disappointment.

Of course, government commits silly mistakes, fails in some basic things and gets involved in acts of corruption, allowing it to gnaw at the fabric of society. Having given the impression that it can turn the economy around and transform the economy, when the reality hits, showing that this task will need the whole of society and not least the business leadership, government is pushed into the corner. Having promised freed education, but failed to deliver it in time, government finds itself in the back foot as students take to the street to demand it. Having promised and publicly announced plans to provide basic services like water, housing, sanitation, roads and so forth, government finds itself under pressure as it turns out it will take a long time and much more resources than government has to deliver on these promises in a short time, government finds itself in the corner.

The state of the nation today therefore is a citizenry that has abdicated its responsibilities to society and left it to government to have everything done. It is a government that has over-estimated its ability to solve problem and produce a new, prosperous country. It is the crisis of expectations as illusions.

We ought not to expect president Zuma or government to surprise us with wisdom about what state we are in and what we can do. That is why we are never satisfied with whatever gets said. Deep down we know more and we ought to say what the state of the nation is.

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