“Now is the hour. This is the moment. South Africa can no longer afford endless rhetoric and mutual recriminations. My government needs to act. It has an electoral mandate to act. And act we shall. We stand or fall by the deliverables that we pledge today.”
These are extracts from what political observers, both locally and internationally, this week described as President Jacob Zuma’s “inspirational” and “electrifying” State of the Nation address (Sona). Often mocked during his first term for his halting delivery and the recycling of formulaic promises, Zuma continued: “We are an exceptional nation and despite our bitter history there is more that unites us than divides us. So I ask that all South Africans, whatever their race, colour or creed, help take up this burden. But anyone in government or the public service who falters or betrays this challenge must know that he or she will have to stand aside for others, others who do embrace the vision and do have the energy.”
Stunned parliamentarians, both government and opposition, gave the apparently reinvigorated president (who since the May 7 general election has kept a low profile, cancelling engagements and spending time in hospital for “fatigue”, fuelling rumours of his early departure from office) a standing ovation. Even his most strident critics in the Economic Freedom Fighters and the National Union of Mineworkers expressed guarded approval of the promise of an end to governmental inertia.
In your dreams. Well, in my dreams. None of the above happened.
Reality was, of course, quite different. Sona was yet again a predictable washout. Expectations are now so low that on social media the conversation was which to watch on television, Sona or Cheaters, with some making the point that the morality of both was much the same.
For it is, after all, cheating to recite, each year, a list of good intentions that everyone, including yourself, know have not the slightest hope of coming to fruition. Pie in the sky about 5% growth rates, about increased employment, about improved delivery, and about encouraging entrepreneurial growth.
Some of Sona is straightforward fibs. Within hours of the president speaking, the independent fact-checking organisation Africa Check called out Zuma on his claim that the government had “opened at least one new school a week in the Eastern Cape last year”. Africa Check delivered the evidence that it is unlikely to have been more than 19 and that in some cases the “hand overs” took place long before the schools admitted pupils. And at least two schools were declared “open” while still under construction.
Some of Sona is artful misrepresentation. Zuma spoke of creating four million “work opportunities” in the past five years, with another six million promised in the next five. But a “work opportunity” is not just a pompous name for a job. It’s once-off chance to labour, only too briefly, on some government work programme and then obediently again to meld into the masses of unemployed. A “work opportunity” is just the government as incompetent labour broker.
The thing is, despite a Sona audience falling asleep or being driven in bored desperation to speculate over Zuma’s sudden fondness for addressing his audience as “compatriots” — “compatriots” was used nine times in the speech and for once there were zero usages of “comrades” — the scenario that I teased you with at the beginning of this column is not impossible. Had Zuma but the courage to lead, this is a nation that is chaffing to follow.
Nor is there any shortage of good ideas about what can and should be done, to pull SA from the mire. There are a number of empowering actions that could be implemented tomorrow — if only presidential vision could be inspanned to galvanise public-service capacity — without any serious ideological wrangling.
An obvious good one comes from the Free Market Foundation (FMF). It notes that there are as many as 10-million council-owned township houses in urban areas, which is where two-thirds of us now reside.
Were these homes to be converted from the restrictive titles that exist, to freely tradable and mortgageable ownership, it would give economic growth a huge shot in the arm. It would also be an act of unparalleled restitution.
That this idea is being advocated by a right-of-centre political opponent (an idea already being successfully implemented by FMF in the Free State town of Parys) should not disqualify it.
Embracing one’s putative opponent is one of the principles of visionary leadership that Nelson Mandela understood well, using it both as bargaining card and as a canny mechanism for co-option. Zuma is not too old or “fatigued” to learn.
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