With my dangling laptop bag bumping rhythmically against my well-cushioned behind, I sprint from the parking lot at OR Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg), up and down the stairs and through the crowd of baggage-wielding travellers. After tossing my laptop plus all the earthly belongings in my pockets onto the conveyer belt for security scanning, I dribble past the tackles of the shoe-shine guys. Within minutes I present my hyperventilating self at the mouth of the giant winding pipe that pours passengers into the aeroplane. Just as well that I had checked myself in online the night before! Slightly more than two hours later, I am in Parliament, Cape Town – where the 2012 State of the Nation address is about to be delivered. My job is to decode, unpack and analyse the speech on national radio. So I take my seat in the makeshift radio station equipped with screens, audio and video feeds.
Zuma is in good spirits. Several times, he deviates from his notes. He jokes and smiles and a few times, he gives his signature deep-stomach chuckle. His audience catches onto his warmth and exuberance. His preliminary remarks predictably include a positive reference to the ANC centenary and unpredictably (even uncharacteristically) also include a mention of the likes of Biko, Sobukwe and Suzman. May this be the beginning of the de-ANC-isation of the South African liberation struggle history!
Next comes the mid-term review and a report-back. Sort of. The so-called review is thin, fast, and largely anecdotal, comprising mostly of PowerPoint-like listings of poorly nuanced, insufficiently developed points which are short on detail. Indeed the report-back consists mainly of recently begun works-in-progress. The problem of ‘structural unemployment’ is traced back to the 1970s – curiously, if also conveniently. The recession is predictably blamed for slowing things down. The list of ‘achievements’ or ‘encouraging signs’ looms large in this section of the speech. Those who fear ‘nationalisation’ are given the assurance that “the mining industry is one of the job drivers” and that government is “committed to the creation of a favourable and globally competitive mining sector” that attracts investment. In speaking about the unnamed provinces whose departments have been put under administration, the president uses the softest of words – “we are working with various provinces to improve governance…” Perhaps Mangaung weighed heavily on his mind, at this point?
Then comes the heart of the address, namely, the announcement of several izingqalazizinda (infrastructure initiatives). To appreciate the need and purpose of these, one must appreciate the problem to which these are designed to respond, namely, the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty. The initiatives come buttressed by a recently established Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) which is overseen directly by the president and his deputy. They straddle virtually all our major economic areas: road, rail, transportation of goods, water sanitation, electricity, mining, ports, exports, industrial development, higher education, the SKA bid and agriculture. As well as the above, the president pledges a home loan guarantee fund to enable those earning less than R15k a month to access mortgage loans, the installation of a million solar geysers in the next three years, the tightening of the Broad-Based Black Economic Act and the promulgation of a green paper designed to speed up land reform. All the initiatives will be driven by and located within state-owned enterprises and government (national and provincial). They are designed to stimulate the economy, create jobs, industrialise the country and generate skills.
We have a tall and rich list of objectives – grand schemes which inspire, bemuse and beguile – all at once. The initiatives must still be fully conceptualised and broken down into projects which are implementable. Funding, capacity and resources have to be found. By their very specialised nature and given our challenge of ‘structural unemployment’, many of the initiatives announced will not generate millions of jobs in the short term. They will only produce knock-on-effect jobs on a massive scale if and once they reach their maturity stage. One also hopes that that impeccable procurement processes and service delivery agreement regimes will be put into place. Otherwise these noble initiatives can lead to a senseless orgy of tenderpreneural activities, producing a series of ineffective initiatives which litter our economic landscape with white elephants, managing only to the enrich a few (whose only skill is ‘technical-know-who’) and providing no stimulation of the economy whatsoever.
This was a State of the Nation address thoroughly and almost totally dominated by matters economical – and rightfully so. But does it go far enough to address the triple challenges highlighted above? Eighteen years since the dawn of democracy, Africa’s largest economy has never managed to bring the rate of unemployment below 20%. It is estimated that nearly 50% of South Africans live in poverty. South Africa boasts one of the largest gaps between the richest and the poorest. Nearly three million young South Africans are neither at school nor gainfully employed. Our school system is full of inefficiencies and gaping holes – haemorrhaging nearly half the cohort by the time they reach the last class in high school. The teachers’ unions, which Zuma thanked – stunning the nation in the process – are deeply implicated in the dysfunctioning of our schools. The higher education sector is under extreme pressure – with demand far outstripping supply. We know the amount set aside to establish two new universities but how much has been set aside to fix the poorly developed and poorly resourced further education sector?
One is struck by the almost exclusive focus on the state and government as the main (if not the sole) stimulator of the economy and creator of jobs. Except for the reference to the partnership between the department of Home Affairs and the banking sector, the speech contains little that suggests strong partnerships between the private sector and government or (civil) society and government. Nor does the speech venture once outside of the borders of South Africa. From listening to the speech, one would not know that Muammar Gaddafi’s wife has recently become a widow. Nor would one know that South(ern) Africa recently failed spectacularly to obtain the position of chairperson of the AU commission – a failure which is amazingly being sold as a form of success. Clearly this speech was focused elsewhere – on the grand schemes designed to stimulate the South African economy. What comes to mind are the words of Robert Burns’s poem titled To a Mouse. May Burns be utterly wrong when he says:
…the best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew
And leave us nothing
but grief and pain
For promised joy.