SONA 2016: will government 'do things differently'?


And so South Africa has seen yet another state of the nation address (SONA) come and go. Since the violent eviction of members of Parliament (MPs) and signal-jamming last year, SONA will never be the same.

This year, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seemed set to disrupt President Jacob Zuma’s speech. When individual MPs of the EFF bobbed up and down claiming ‘points of order’ or ‘privilege’, we knew the political theatre would start. Speaker Baleka Mbete was frothing and eventually Thandi Modise, Chair of the National Council of Provinces, took over. Eventually, amid cries of ‘Zupta must fall!’, the EFF MPs were escorted out. The Congress of the People’s Mosiuoa Lekota followed suit.

But SONA felt different this year too. Much was made of the president’s weakened position given the extraordinary turn-around by Zuma’s lawyers in the Nkandla Constitutional Court matter this week. Zuma is a political street fighter and a party man first and foremost. He knows his constituency but at the same time, a president nearing the end of his term of office has a waning ability to dispense patronage. Many in the African National Congress (ANC) will be thinking of life after Zuma.

An unprecedented degree of security was seen this year, with snipers in fatigues on the rooftops around Parliament and police flooding the city. Along the highway leading into the central business district, police cars lined the sides of the road. The Parliamentary precinct itself was blocked off with barriers. Bored policemen and women were dispensing petty powers to keep media and other ‘outsiders’ in check.

Zuma is a political street fighter and a party man first and foremost

As the afternoon wore on, workers fled the city simply to avoid the drama. The ‘people’s Parliament’ seemed under siege, and the people nowhere present except in protests, several blocks away.

Increased securitisation has become a motif of the Zuma presidency, and the controversy regarding the still-unsigned Protection of State Information Bill, the National Key Points Act as well as the cybercrimes bill point to a closing down of the state. Did the president truly believe that delivering his speech in a sanitised environment would silence citizens?

Zuma began his speech almost half an hour after the scheduled start, given the initial disruptions. As usual, his delivery was pedestrian, wooden and seemed to have no true organising theme to inspire or set out a vision for the country. But, we know that President Zuma often battles with delivering speeches, so that should probably be factored in.

Zuma clearly wanted to convey a message of seriousness as regards the economy. Earlier that week, he had met with over 100 chief executive officers and Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, and also met with business leaders. Damage control and trying to avoid a ratings downgrade formed the number one priority. And so Zuma has said we need to ‘do things differently’.

Many in the ANC will be thinking of life after Zuma

He then did a virtual cut-and-paste pastiche of the issues that were discussed with business. It was quite a list, but one that we had heard many times before. Yet now with his back against the wall, Zuma needed to show true commitment to reducing red tape and creating an environment of policy certainty.

He referred to the Minerals Petroleum Resources Development Bill that has stalled and urged Parliament to process it speedily. In addition, Zuma recommitted government to promoting investment through the ‘one-stop shop’ approach, and also to the inter-ministerial committee on investment promotion.

Key, of course, to our increased debt will have to be for government to cut costs drastically, and Zuma announced savings to be made within government. For the details, we will have to wait until Gordhan delivers his budget speech. It is easy to pronounce on the cutting of red tape and expenditure, but can Zuma commit himself and his cabinet to such austerity? After the delivery of the SONA, a group of black German cars sped out of the Parliamentary precinct. The president’s own bloated cabinet, as well as every minister’s shiny cavalcade, is not only an assault on the poor but also costs in real terms.

Will there be speedy implementation of these cost-cutting measures; and will the right thing be done when it comes to the corporate governance of state-owned enterprises (SOEs)? Zuma’s line was that SOEs need to be ‘financially sound’. Indeed that is so, however we have seen South African Airways running out of cash and chair Dudu Miyeni continuing as a one-person wrecking ball. Will the president act and ask her to go?

These are some of the tough decisions that will need to be taken in the months to come. Disappointingly, the speech was very short on measures to deal with the drought and water crisis; apart from mouthing the right words. In the heart of the country, commercial farmers are battling – as are black small-scale farmers. Local government made the president’s list, but in a surprisingly cursory fashion given that we are in an election year.

Can the SA government ‘get tough’ and truly do things differently?

We start another political year with a commitment to doing things differently; and that hopefully includes no wilful sabotage of the economy by Zuma and his cronies. It has to incorporate tough action and the creation of regulatory certainty, austerity and fixing a broken education system, among an array of things.

The tax bill will be back on the table for discussion, and there are talks about partnerships with the private sector. But can this government ‘get tough’ and truly do things differently? That remains the salient question.

SONA foreshadows the budget speech that Gordhan will make, and perhaps the president’s rather more cautious stance on nuclear power is an indicator of Gordhan’s power. No deal would be pursued which the country could not afford, Zuma said.

SONA’s ‘laundry list’ of woes and possible solutions did not, however, quite speak to the heart of our discontent as a country divided and a president somewhat disconnected from the realities most ordinary citizens face.

It’s going to be a long and trying year. We can only hope to keep our heads above water and avert further crises. No one expects our challenges to be resolved overnight, and so it is a pity that the president – apart from his comments on racism in South Africa – did not speak more to South Africans who are feeling the pinch of unemployment and deep inequality.

Judith February, Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

This article was originally published by EyeWitness News.

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