We Track Five Years Of Presidential Addresses To The Nation

Ferial Haffajee explains what she expects from this year's State of the Nation speech.

09/02/2017 08:22 SAST | Updated 09/02/2017 11:50 SAST

The more the State of the Nation Address becomes a battle-site for President Jacob Zuma, the more halting and staccato his planning and delivery of it becomes.

It is now like a Cabinet management checklist, where ministers throw their best work at the presidency, and the speechwriters stay up for nights and days, trying to pull together what inevitably ends up as a dog of a speech.

It is difficult to read and to follow, with no core message or appeal to the heart or to give a sense of what impels the president. Watching him for each of his eight addresses, one gets the sense he enjoys it less and less these days as delays and disruptions become the order of the day.

I far more enjoyed his three speeches to ANC audiences between December and January, where Zuma's fury at what he calls the pillars of economic power came boiling over; he was animated and cheeky about the media. He was angry at not being able to make his own appointment to the Treasury after the debacle of Des van Rooyen (the minister he appointed for a sum total of three days before the market and his comrades in the ANC forced him to make Pravin Gordhan finance minister).

Zuma was boisterous and impassioned. It felt like I was seeing the real deal we never get at a State of the Nation Address.

Today, we will instead receive a message so spun and polished and negotiated that it will mean very little in the end. It's a pity because the past five addresses of Zuma's second term show some real positives.

For one: Zuma's cabinet gets some things done. South Africa is under-féted for the construction of a massive system of social security. In 2011, Zuma said that 15 million people benefitted from social grants. By 2016, it had grown to 16.4 million people. By 2014, the Zuma administration had added 6 million work opportunities –- this is through a system of public works that is also under-applauded.

Jobless people are put to work on successful programmes like Working for Waste, Working for Wetlands, Working for Water and Working on Fire. In 2015, he said that an additional 15,000 young people would be added and trained as plumbers. If you've ever had to look for a good plumber, you will know why this is a good idea. There has also been significant growth in free schooling (although quality at free schools is a problem) and free healthcare.

While the administration can very often feel mired by stasis, things, in fact, are happening. Two new universities have been built; there are at least 100 new schools (many of them quite beautiful products of the Asizi programme) and in 2015, the president reported that 342 schools received water for the first time.

There's more. The Square Kilometre Array telescope being built in the Northern Cape is attracting some of the world's top scientists to South Africa and growing our own stargazing timber. Tourism numbers are consistently headed up and the growth of Chinese tourists to our shores (up 56% in the last year but off a low base) has huge growth potential. Zuma's push for South Africa to be an active part of the Brics group of countries including Brazil, Russia, India and China has been an important geopolitical step.

But then other things get murky and confusing to ensure that the Zuma administration is unable to deal with the "triple challenge" of "poverty, unemployment and inequality" the president name-checks every year.

Why is this? As a middle-income country rich in resources and with good growth in services, we should have done better. Here's one reason: almost every year, Zuma adds another policy to the basket of measures meant to stimulate growth in employment.

He started in 2011 and 2012 with the National Development Plan, to which he added the New Growth Path, the Industrial Policy Action Plan, the Five Priorities of 2014, the Nine Point jobs stimulus plan of 2015, the Operation Phakisa of 2015, and so on.

The list spins on in a treadmill of policy-making and plan launches that all get almost nowhere because there are simply too many of them, and they often contradict themselves. In both agro-processing and mining, policy uncertainty has impeded growth of two vital sectors. This is because the president made promises through successive addresses that have not been kept.

For example, in successive addresses, Zuma has pledged to pass the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act with a new mining charter, but it has still not been done and relations between the industry and government have gone from bad to worse. There is similar uncertainty about the Land Holdings bill, which is about two years late for tabling after the president announced it in his address in 2015.

The Land Holdings bill is a radical piece of legislation that seeks to change the ownership model of land to benefit workers; to limit the requirement of willing buyer, willing seller in land expropriations and to curb foreign ownership of land. It will mean a huge change, and in the uncertainty of almost 24 months, the agro-economy has been kept on tenterhooks.

Similarly on tenterhooks is the position of the Finance Minister Gordhan, who has run a vital department, the Treasury, with the previous spectre of criminal charges and now of a reshuffle hanging over his head. Uncertainty is not a smart way to govern but it has become the only certainty in a Zuma administration.

What will Thursday bring? Undoubtedly, the president is both fearful and angry as his latest speeches and the militarisation of the parliamentary precinct reveal. Will this show in his speech? I don't think so. As a former head of intelligence, the president does not reveal when he is anxious or nervous.

But what is almost certain is that South Africa will get yet another economic policy: this time, radical economic transformation –- the plank upon which Zuma wants to construct his final legacy as he enters the twilight of his troubled presidency.