Janice Winter
Janice Winter

The state of the state

If the state is judging the state of the nation, then it’s up to the nation to judge the state of the state

The shower head is back: and this time it’s super-sized. I’ll be interested to see its proportions and position after yesterday’s State of the Nation Address. Last night President Zuma was in your lounge addressing you via SABC on his view of the state of our nation. Considering that his official verdict differed in detail from my unofficial own, and knowing that this is exactly where the devil is said to lie, I thought I’d scan the national headlines and use these as a barometer of truth for his talk.

The themes covered in the papers are largely in keeping with those mentioned in Zuma’s address: the 2010 Fifa World Cup™, crime, governance, service delivery, the fight against HIV/Aids, good governance and accountability and our democracy 20 years on from Mandela’s release. So let’s go through a few of them:

One issue on Zuma’s agenda was the 2010 Fifa World Cup™, with our president emphasising how we are on schedule in our preparations, and encouraging citizens to celebrate the event, buy tickets to attend matches and support Bafana Bafana. While I share in his optimism about the event, there was much that was not said in his speech. His celebratory line was similar to that expressed on the City of Joburg’s website: “Match venues are upgraded and ready; there is safety and security around match precincts and free access to the city; there are adequate healthcare services and facilities; there is a concrete financial environment; there is a reliable public transport system; infrastructure can cope with the volume of people expected … “

While the website celebrates the “greening” of Soweto with the planting of 200 000 trees in advance of foreign tourists, it fails to engage with what I see as the double standards of provision. My guess is that if local residents were asked what they would most value as a government provision, running water, sanitation, electricity or healthcare would trump trees. I am also sceptical of the local government’s choice of the accessible and tour-guided Soweto over Alexandra, Orange Farm or Zevenfontein, for example.

On the subject of our national image during the World Cup was this week’s Mail & Guardian headline: “Vuvuzelas not instruments of war”, recounting Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa’s assurance to “sensitive” Europeans that the vuvuzela is not an instrument of violence and that “It takes an African, a South African, to understand … ” After having a good giggle at his statement, I must confess that I’m not convinced it is the vuvuzelas that are stopping sensitive Europeans from buying tickets, but rather a reality that not even a stab-proof vest can protect against:

My Facebook homepage shows a friend’s status saying how he became “an official JHB statistic” on Monday when he was forced to lie down with a 9mm pushing into his face and was stripped of his possessions. A concerned comment from a friend empathises, recounting a similar experience that occurred outside her house on Saturday. Joburg’s assurances of security around match precincts are of little consequence if safety is threatened in cars and homes. Also making headlines yesterday was the news that e.tv’s self-confessed criminal is allegedly “schizophrenic”, which is sad for him, but I’m not sure is relevant to the greater issues at hand in his fame: a) gun-happy criminals waiting for World Cup visitors in order to enact colonial redistribution or just chance their luck for forex through crime, and b) the subsequent police subpoenas on the media for their (albeit sensationalist) interviews with the criminals.

Another headline declares: “ANC distances itself from Mpumalanga hit list”, in reference to an alleged hit list targeting people who stood in the way of access to Soccer World Cup tenders that was first reported by the Sunday World. Reports about this alleged hit list resurfaced this week, when the Sunday Times listed the names of at least 12 local leaders who had died under “suspicious circumstances” in Mpumalanga since 1998, received death threats, disappeared or survived assassination attempts. While the hit list may prove nothing more than conspiracy theory or media hype, and the murders bizarre coincidence, the fact that these links are even possible are worrying.

This, then, leads into the issue of crime, which Zuma addressed briefly, promising a ruthless fight against crime by the police and state security. Unsurprisingly, though, he was not brave enough to confront the recent reports of crime by (or with links to) the police and security agents themselves. This week alone, there have been several such stories:

Rwandan-born, South African resident Deo Kaitesi was allegedly accosted by police who shocked him with cattle prods, burnt his genitals with a cigarette lighter, sprayed teargas at him, stole R300 from his wallet and called him “amakwerekwere”, a derogatory name for foreigners. “They told me ‘this is not your land’. I was numb. I know you don’t fight the police so I put my hands up. It was all I could do,” he said.

Knysna police officers are being investigated for the rape of a woman by two on-duty cops in a marked police van on the Knysna main road on Saturday. The woman had left a restaurant after arguing with some friends and upon seeing a parked police van, asked them for assistance. The driver pulled her into the van and the passenger allegedly raped her.

Sheryl Cwele, estranged wife of South Africa’s state security minister Siyabonga Cwele, appears in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on drug charges tomorrow. While Siyabonga claims he knew nothing of her actions, I’m not sure which is worse: the state security minister knowing and doing nothing to stop her; the state security minister not even knowing such an intimate and accessible crime or the possibility that he is also somehow involved. Either way, it is disappointing that he has not stepped down from his position in order for this to be resolved without compromise to his, and his government’s, integrity.

This story is all the more ironic given that President Zuma demanded greater accountability and more prudent leadership from his cabinet ministers and provincial premiers in his address. Though this is certainly a laudable demand, I’m unsure both of the sincerity of this statement and also of what it means in practical terms, considering Zuma’s current controversies around presidential pardons and presidential apologies. I would have immense respect for Zuma, were he to confront these issues openly, but his tactic thus far has been to keep his head down for as long as possible until the public pressure makes this impossible. It is not realistic or indeed fair to expect greater accountability and more prudent leadership from cabinet ministers and provincial premiers if the president is not held to his own expectations of others.

These personal indiscretions were conveniently offset by the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya acknowledged that: “This particular [State of the Nation] is a celebration of Mandela’s legacy, which exemplifies the principles of forgiveness, humility, good governance, tolerance, equality and a collective effort to ease the burden of poverty and social ills. The day will bring all South Africans together to mark the defining moment in the history of the country.” While this is clearly an important anniversary to mark, it should not be celebrated ahistorically as ending the oppression of apartheid and ushering in freedom and democracy, but also as an opportunity to assess our democracy and the ability of citizens to translate democratic freedoms into what The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen calls “substantive freedoms” — such as the ability to live to old age or to engage in economic transactions. It is because of the hard-won democratic freedoms embodied in Mandela’s release from prison 20 years ago that we must so cautiously guard and fiercely defend them.

I found the address largely vacuous. While the things that our president did say were largely uncontroversial, it’s also important to consider what he did not say. As he has failed to address many of the questions we have and the insecurity we feel, it might be time for the media to ask him a few questions more directly.