Despite always being cloaked in the fine threads of statesmanship, the State of the Nation address (Sona) is actually party political workwear. It exists to advance the narrow interests — the year ahead — of the leader concerned.
That’s true whether the leader is Jacob Zuma, Barack Obama, or David Cameron using the queen as ventriloquist’s dummy. National interests mostly take the back seat to policies that can assist in delivering quick advantages, especially in years when the party nationally, or the president within the party, faces election. All rather unfortunate when a nation is in real need of inspiring leadership.
The perceived fragility of South Africa’s social compact and economy is reflected in the unusual level of interest in Sona this year. Thousands have aired their views in newspaper and social media forums, telling the president what they wanted to see in Sona.
So how did Zuma do? The leader of the opposition, the Democratic Alliance’s Lindiwe Mazibuko, said he was ‘out of touch with reality’ and gave SA a public relations exercise rather than a bold plan. She’s right about the frustrating PR but wrong about the boldness.
To commit R300-billion to infrastructural spending, the equivalent of two-and-a-half Soccer World Cups, is bold indeed. These are first steps to the developmental state that President Zuma admires and attributes to China, but which in SA can in fact be traced back to the massive and successful state corporatism of the early National Party years.
As for the PR, well there’s a formula to Sona, the world over.
The first part is to blame one’s predecessors for the pickle the country is in. After 18 years of African National Congress rule that is a bit stale, but beats publicly admitting to one’s own government’s failings. Zuma ticked this box.
The second is to take credit for the random blessings of providence. Zuma ticked this box, ascribing to ANC skill the entirely fortuitous 365 000 jobs added to the economy in the last quarter of 2011, in the wake of a weakening rand.
The third is to outline one’s so-called solution, taking particular care — if one is in an electoral year — to distribute state largesse so as to best maximise the vote of key constituencies.
Zuma ticked this box. The bulk of the infrastructural spending is going to Limpopo (Malemaland) and the Eastern Cape (Mbekiland), and the North-West, all of which are provinces tempted to challenge a second term for Zuma. Well, perhaps no longer.
The fourth is to minimise or ignore the obstacles to one’s ‘solution’ no matter how obvious they are to everyone else. Zuma ticked this box, too.
No mention was made of the challenge of huge infrastructural spending in a country with such a daunting skills shortage. Nor of how the government would thwart the accompanying tenderpreneurial graft.
No mention was made of the challenge to creating a “knowledge economy” given a monopolistic and inept Telkom and so many incompetent, greedy teachers.
He spoke about the importance about mining but never spoke the word “nationalisation”, the mere prospect of which has cost billions in investment and scores of thousands of jobs.
But in all it was a confident performance by Zuma, who was more fluent, more masterful, more invigorated than he has been in any previous Sona. It was characteristically folksy, too.
Zuma poked gentle fun at the continued soccer woes of Bafana Bafana. There were birthday wishes for a party stalwart and congratulations to a disabled sportsman.
But his best joke was enitrely unintentional. When he thanked the notoriously obstructive teacher unions for “supporting” efforts to improve the dismal school results, Zuma faltered momentarily and couldn’t restrain a wry smile, sparking much sardonic laughter among the assembled parliamentarians.