Hennie van Vuuren
Hennie van Vuuren

SA: A nation in a good state?

On Friday, President Kgalema Motlanthe walked the red carpet to open the nation’s legislature. As he shuffled past dignitaries and diplomats, one could almost hear the jingle of keys in his pocket. The president is little more than a caretaker in a blue overall we are told. He is caught between Thabo Mbeki, who left office in September, and Jacob Zuma, who the African National Congress (ANC) expects will be elected state president in April. The caretaker is caught in a tussle between two landlords who continue to wrestle for the title deed to the state. The views of the tenants and the electorate are often drowned out in the process.

It would be foolish to think this power struggle ended when Mbeki exited office. The Congress of the People (Cope) has given former Mbeki allies a new political home and some suggest Mbeki the opportunity to craft the party’s policies from the backroom.

Mbeki might not be universally admired by some Cope leaders who want to build an alternative to the ANC. But there are some former senior technocrats from Mbeki’s civil service who await the return of “the chief”. Some Cope leaders shifted uncomfortably when delegates at the inaugural conference in December broke into the umpteenth Mbeki-themed struggle song. The subtle message was that the party leadership constituted little more than caretakers of Mbeki’s legacy. Whether Mbeki will return to reclaim his legacy will be revealed in the months ahead. But his political career suggests he is loyal to ideas, particularly those which he shapes from his study and which he knows will eventually come to define policy at political jamborees. Far from being sidelined, he seems to be at the real centre of political struggle.

Nobody wants political certainty now more than Zuma. You get the sense that his presidential Hummer was left idling throughout Motlanthe’s State of the Nation address on Friday. This was somebody else’s thunder and he needed to hit the campaign trail, which he hopes will secure his earlier political victory in Polokwane. He has to prove that he enjoys the support of the ANC electorate by thumping Cope at the polls. But even if he is to be elected president, his future is still full of uncertainty. There is the matter of his corruption trial and tax-evasion charges which will see him appear in court again in August. His presidency will also hinge on the support he gets from business and political patrons who see him as key to unlocking state resources.

Enter the fray, the mild-mannered Motlanthe who, given the political context, delivered a relatively balanced, if not bland, address to Parliament just weeks before the national and provincial elections. Many South Africans have reason to question Motlanthe’s assessment that the “nation is in a good state”. If anything, the political and institutional context suggests the nation and its state is in flux.

Some key issues raised by Motlanthe that require further reflection include:

The economy

With a global economic crisis looming the president was thin on detail of how the crisis will be averted. He was no doubt leaving Finance Minister Trevor Manuel to thrash this out in his Budget address this week. It’s important that any future discussion of an economic stimulus package (state investment in the economy) needs to ensure that such an intervention is targeted and does not amount to the poor subsidising debt-laden and politically well-connected companies. The president would have done well to spell this out particularly given the fact that some of these companies will be looking to fund election campaigns.

Service delivery

Though his speech was peppered with statistics of how effective poverty alleviation has proven, he was clear that “we still have some way to go”. One issue Motlanthe did not mention by name was the Cholera outbreak in the country and critics argue he did not dwell enough on why the health department did not prevent the near collapse of health care services in provinces such as the Free State

Crime and corruption

Motlanthe was forthright in acknowledging both problems. The repeated mention of corruption must have made some parliamentarians implicated in the Travelgate scam and arms deal shift uncomfortably in their seats. But Motlanthe stopped short of calling for an inquiry into the multibillion-rand arms deal, even as a civil-society rally calling for such an inquiry attracted 1 000 supporters a few hundred meters from the National Assembly. Another matter which did not receive a word of mention was the xenophobic violence which saw the displacement of tens of thousands of foreigners across the country eight months ago. If there was another issue deserving of public inquiry it was surely this but it has been shifted off the public agenda by politicians and the media alike.

Independent institutions

Despite unprecedented verbal attacks on the judiciary last year and axing of the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), Vusi Pikoli, Motlanthe did not use this important opportunity to address these issues. Instead he used an interview on the public broadcaster on Sunday to defend the independence of the judiciary, describing as “unfortunate” the terms used by politicians to attack the judiciary. There can be little doubt that Motlanthe failed a crucial test in not reappointing Pikoli thereby leaving the door wide open for the appointment of a new NDPP who might well be inclined to drop charges against Zuma. This is a more likely scenario than immunity from prosecution for a sitting head of state as is the case in France or Italy. Motlanthe’s short presidential legacy will now be judged on how he handles this process and more importantly that he makes the right noises about the need to guard constitutional democracy, including judicial independence.

National unity

In singling out various leaders by name, Motlanthe was inclusive in his approach when hailing those who had contributed to the countries freedom including the likes of Mosiuoa Lekota (Cope leader) and the late Helen Suzman (a liberal opponent of apartheid in the white parliament).

With possibly less than a 100 days left in office, history might well come to regard Motlanthe as the president who should have been, but never really was. If anything, Motlanthe represents an ideal that presidents should be caretakers and not landlords. Men and women spellbound by the spoils of entitlement present a profound threat to constitutional democracy once elected into office. Surely it is far better to have a caretaker, in a blue overall, whose job depends primarily on keeping the tenants satisfied?