SONA: what should the president prioritise in 2016?


On Thursday, South African President Jacob Zuma will deliver his state of the nation address (SONA). The Economic Freedom Fighters have vowed that they will ‘not show respect’ to Zuma, but whether the president’s speech will be disrupted again remains to be seen.

Zuma faces an increasing credibility challenge, and what he says will need to set the scene for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s all-important budget speech on 24 February.

Can Zuma rise to the occasion; or should South Africans expect a pedestrian talk with little vision?

This year has been off to a fractious, argumentative start; and Zuma probably does not have the ability to speak to what divides and troubles us. We have, after all, waited years for him to indicate that he truly is a ‘man of the people’. But, we live in hope in these parts. If we are to find each other in 2016, Zuma will need to address the following ‘big five’ cluster of issues:

1: The economy. It’s always been about the economy, but more than that, it is about inequality and its effects. When economist Thomas Piketty recently visited South Africa, we were reminded – as if we needed reminding – that income inequality in our country is rising. Over 12 million people live in extreme poverty, and one in four South Africans goes to bed hungry, according to ActionAid. Piketty’s key statistic is that 60%-65% of South Africa’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the population. Of course, this group has historically been predominantly, almost exclusively, white.

Zuma needs to speak clearly on issues of race and inequality in his address

Piketty’s solution? Recognise the failure of broad-based black economic empowerment, implement a national minimum wage and accelerate land reform. Of course, this deals only peripherally with the unemployed and unemployable. As former minister Trevor Manuel said, however, everyone agrees that Piketty is right, but where is the social solidarity to fix the problem?

Who will have the courage and who will lead? The African National Congress (ANC) looks tired and too self interested to lead the charge and attempt to build the social consensus we need to even start discussing inequality sensibly. And so while our leaders seemed a little floored by #FeesMustFall, the movement has become the face of an angry, unequal society.

The #FeesMustFall campaign and the inequality debate in general have a racial aspect – which is hardly a surprise, given our history. Simply put, one is more likely to be black and poor than white and poor in South Africa. A very real anger bubbles just under the surface of all our interactions. It arises at every conversation we try to have regarding inequality, race, redress and that old chestnut – ‘transformation’.

What is clear is that these debates must extend beyond our campuses and need a fully engaged and committed society. For that, however, we need leadership across all spectrums of society to engage and not opt out. The president needs to speak clearly on issues of race and inequality in his address; but he cannot do so without a bold vision of economic equality.

Constitutions are for all people; not only lawyers and rarefied legal settings

2: If 1994 was about a ‘rainbow nation’, the racial polarisation we have seen in parts of #FeesMustFall and from the likes of Penny Sparrow and her ilk indicate just how far we have moved from Madiba’s dream of a non-racial society.

Given the lack of understanding about the role and the place of the constitution, we have to ask how we can promote constitutional education in our schools and among ordinary citizens?

Constitutions are for all people; not only lawyers and rarefied legal settings. The president could lead on this too in his SONA speech, though sadly, he himself has an ambivalent relationship with the constitution.

3: The securitisation of the state. If we are to agree that we wish to move towards a state in which constitutional rights are enshrined, then some proposed laws are of concern. Over the past year, we saw instances of police brutality in the #FeesMustFall protests that only created a more incendiary environment and violated rights.

We can also not forget the storming of Parliament in February last year, and the signal-jamming incident for which no one has been properly held to account. Perhaps the president will fill us in on the Protection of State Information Bill that lies in his in-tray, gathering dust.

Last year saw several battles with the state regarding attempts to police the Internet, the flawed National Key Points Act and access to lists of actual key points, as well as the ongoing battle around the appointment of the inspector general of intelligence. State secrecy has often fuelled these battles and will no doubt continue to do so as government becomes more defensive in the face of increasing protests. Will our president lead on a commitment to create a more open state, including a more pro-active approach to his own financial disclosure?

Poor South Africans are affected the most by government’s inability to maintain infrastructure

4: Local government is largely dysfunctional. Every year, the Auditor-General laments the qualified audits and corruption at municipal level; and every year we shrug our shoulders and hope for the best. We have a weak, compliant Minister Van Rooyen, fresh from finance – yet who speaks of local government as if he is quoting from a textbook. What is needed is to break the cycle of patronage that local government has become.

The ANC-led government knows the problem. After all, Yunus Carrim’s excellent 2009 report on the state of local government sets out the challenges of patronage, corruption and a lack of skill. Yet, the ANC and government are yet to act. This week, the residents of Mtubatuba registered their complaints regarding sewerage winding through their streets.

The poor are affected the most as a result of government’s inability to maintain infrastructure and a sheer indifference. For Zuma, it should not simply be a case of protecting his party’s majority, but about showing us the face of a government that cares for the poor and most vulnerable.

5: The drought should surely be on our president’s mind? While we are watching our superficially stitched societal compromise come undone in so many ways, South Africa is facing one of its worst droughts in decades. It is having a devastating effect on farms and small towns across our country. In part, the drought is a result of not taking proper care of infrastructure, not building sufficient dams and then a rather slow response to the challenges farmers are facing, as well as over-grazing and other poor farming practices. What this drought is doing to small towns and farmers, in particular black, small-scale farmers is nothing short of catastrophic. Those that were profitable before are now in dire straits.

Zuma has an opportunity to speak to the concerns of ordinary citizens – he should not fail them.

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

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