10/01/2017 14:39 SAST | Updated 10/01/2017 15:43 SAST

Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves. Gordhan, Not Zuma, Needs To Provide Leadership

An analysis of last year's January 8 statement and State of the Nation, and this year's January 8 statement shows the president and the ANC are running out of ideas.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
The A-team: South Africa's Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas (R) arrives with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan for Gordhan's 2016 Budget address in Cape Town.


It's becoming eminently clear that this government's real policy shifts, actual innovation and changes of consequence happen with Pravin Gordhan, minister of finance, at the tiller.

President Jacob Zuma and the leading lights in the African National Congress (ANC) have over the weekend again illustrated how bereft of ideas they actually are.

The economy? No problem, copy and paste "radical transformation" from old speeches.

Land? Well, recycle the old "1913 Land Act" chestnut and emphasise "expropriation".

Higher education? The Freedom Charter always seems to do the trick.

That much is clear after Sunday's January 8 statement, delivered by Zuma on behalf of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC), the governing party's top echelon of leaders and the sharpest tools in Luthuli House's shed.

There were no new policy proposals or ideas, zero reflection on government and governance innovations and scarcely any inclination to adapt old ways to new realities.

Instead, the statement wasn't much more than an internal party memo, reminding members to stay true to the party's values of "humility and selflessness", whilst focusing on unity amidst the rapidly escalating leadership race. Zuma (he only read the statement, it wasn't his speech) told wet supporters at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto the party doesn't tolerate corruption, factionalism or internal manipulation, and will be looking to find leaders that espouse these values.

The statement wasn't much more than an internal party memo, reminding members to stay true to the party's values of "humility and selflessness", whilst focusing on unity amidst the rapidly escalating leadership race.

The speech was heavy on party rhetoric and very thin on actual policy. This is important, because the January 8 statement usually informs the first cabinet lekgotla of the year, which provides the basis for the State of the Nation address in February. The latter is of course critical because it sets the party's course for year and the tone for government.

Except, it doesn't.

The statement, over the last number of years, has been constructed on the same framework: an introduction heavy on history and sentiment, an overview of the ideals of the Freedom Charter and its implementation, references to some or other social issue (like #FeesMustFall), interspersed with party housekeeping and rounded off by references to international events.

The policy issues Zuma addressed on Sunday were the economy (including growth and transformation), higher education, land reform, energy and health. Granted, they are the most pressing issues of our time, but the ANC offered nothing except the beaten path.

Take the economy, for example. Zuma said: "2017 will be the year where we take more decisive steps to promote greater economic inclusion and advance black people's ownership, control and real leadership of the economy ... keeping in mind our goals of radical socio-economic transformation."

Compare this with what he said last year: "The country requires an activist, interventionist and capable state that takes decisive action to effect radical economic transformation."

And in last year's State of the Nation address: "A resilient and fast-growing economy is at the heart of our radical economic transformation agenda and our National Development Plan ... economic transformation and black empowerment remain a key party of all economic programmes of government."

That's three speeches on major platforms saying the same thing. But nothing new. No new vision, no change of approach and no policy adjustments.

Land is another example.

On Sunday, Zuma said dispossession is a "heinous" legacy and "it's time to return the land to the people." This year, he added, will be the year that the Expropriation Act will be used by government.

Last year, he said dispossession is a "fundamental historical injustice" and that land reform must be "radically accelerated".

During the 2016 State of the Nation address he said land reform is a crucial part of transformation and that the land claims process has been reopened.

Again, three speeches, 13 months apart, and pretty much the same message.

Zuma and the ANC, on Sunday, had nothing to offer either its supporters or the country's citizens about the transformation of the economy and black involvement in it besides lofty promises. There are no clear plans to revitalise the manufacturing sector or to create policy certainty.

The same with the land question: the governing party has been saying land reform should be "radically accelerated" for years – it's had a Constitution which facilitates expropriation for more than 20 years and it's largely in agreement with organised agriculture about the imperative of land reform.

The prospects that the State of the Nation address on 9 February will be much different does not look good. The ANC is too busy with its internal machinations to actually govern – that is being left to Treasury. We will therefore have to wait for Pravin Gordhan, minister of finance, to table his budget on 22 February.

Treasury, after all, decides which programmes to fund and which to dump. We'll see the real policy shifts and innovation deep in the Estimates of Government Expenditure, sidled away in the National Budget Review and annotated in the Division of Revenue Bill.

We won't see anything in any speech left for Zuma to deliver before his term of office ends somewhere in May 2019.

On Heritage Day 2008, this reporter gave the fresh-faced and newly minted treasurer-general of the ANC, Mathews Phosa, a lift to Cape Town International Airport after he addressed celebrations in the city. Asked about the newly elected top six leadership's goals for its term of office, Phosa replied they have set goals, but that the leadership should first ensure a second term of office.

"We are always in election mode," he said.

Never in governance mode, it seems.