The general, mainly negative, response to President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address (Sona) last week was for a number of reasons to be expected. On sober analysis it has to be said, however, that it did exactly what it is supposed to do: it reported back on work in progress, outlined corrective actions where needed, and provided broad outlines of further initiatives.
Prior expectations for fresh plans to be announced were just not realistic. Most government programmes that were announced in previous years are long-term and are works in progress. Thus Zuma correctly focused reporting back on these programmes in progress and pointing out where, if necessary, adjustments would be made or implementation would be sped up.
Criticism on the lack of detail, often ignores the fact that the Sona is not an individual effort by the president but in effect a collective report by him and his cabinet as a whole.
It is largely the function of individual ministers and their officials, with direct departmental responsibilities, to provide the flesh and details during discussion of their budget votes in parliament. This is usually accompanied by extensive media briefings.
Attention therefore, now shits to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who will deliver his annual Budget next week on Wednesday 27 February. This will be the first more detailed indication of the priorities for the next year.
Another important backdrop to this year’s Sona has also been the fact that, as we reported two weeks ago, South Africa has already moved into election mode. In the wake of President Zuma’s Sona, leader of the Democratic Alliance and official opposition, Helen Zille, said she was “furiously preparing” for the next general elections in 2014.
From Zuma’s speech it is clear the National Development Plan, covering the ANC’s five priority issues, education, health, creating decent work, the fight against crime, and rural development and land reform, will form the basis of its election manifesto. The actual manifesto has yet to be drafted and released. Under these circumstances it stands to reason that Zuma would not reveal too much of the ANC’s hand at this stage, and would focus on objectives already achieved.
Even so, Zuma did offer a sober assessment of where government had gone wrong or was implementing previously announced programmes too slowly. Examples are the infrastructure programme, the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme and land redistribution.
He stressed that the economy would have to grow three-fold in order to create 11 million jobs by 2030, an acknowledgment that it was finding the going extremely tough. But the most significant reference here was when he said: “We will engage business, labour and other social partners in pursuit of solutions. No single force acting individually can achieve the objectives we have set for ourselves”.
On this score, Zuma gave recognition to the importance of both of government’s most important social partners, business and labour. While he stressed the importance of the private sector in helping government beat poverty, inequality and unemployment, he also did not shy away from handing out the bad medicine; in business’s case this was the mooting of a new mining tax regime. The same went for labour where he showed sensitivity to issues of concern to it, but did not hesitate to take a tough stance on violence in protests and strike actions.
In developing the address the cabinet and its advisers found themselves boxed in by a number of considerations and restraints and had to craft the speech around these issues. Probably most important among these is the fact that most departments are still busy realigning their programmes and in some cases policies with the NDP that was only endorsed by the ANC in December.
Youth employment and education
If Zuma was short on details on the extremely important yet often controversial issue of youth unemployment, it was with good reason. Government, business and labour are still finalising an accord on youth unemployment, the details of which are to be announced at the end of February.
Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, who is leading the negotiations, has however, lifted the lid a little. He said there will be no blanket wage subsidy but rather state support for growth industries with young workforces. Such a formula should satisfy the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) which has opposed a blanket subsidy for fear it would cost older employees their jobs.
On youth unemployment Zuma also focused on the previously announced Job Fund and various youth employment incentives which, with the National Rural Youth Services Corps and rural youth hubs, would be used to address the issue.
He also challenged the private sector to match an initiative whereby state-owned companies will increase apprenticeships and learnerships.
He restated his desire to make education an essential service, albeit with teachers retaining the right to strike, and demanded better performance from teachers and more value for money.
However, he failed to impress in respect of other education-related issues, repeating a promise since the days of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, to eradicate mud schools in the Eastern Cape.
On the fight against corruption there was also nothing to get excited about and only a promise that vacancies in the security cluster will be filled … not a new promise in itself, and unlikely to remove widespread cynicism regarding government’s seriousness in tackling corruption.
On a positive note, Zuma hammered the final nail into the coffin of nationalisation of the mines.
The revelation that government had already spent some R860 billion on its infrastructure programme may have pleasantly surprised many, especially those who complained that it was not getting off the ground. According to Zuma, some of the projects were on track and some needed speeding up.
Finally, it should also be remembered that Zuma’s address was made under difficult global economic conditions that directly impact South Africa. In addition, these took a further toll on domestic developments last year.
All in all, Zuma’s address was a balanced one made under difficult circumstances but he and government clearly have an image problem. Some of the blame for this might be attributed to the seemingly default confrontational communication style of many office-bearers, including a large number of government and ANC spokespersons.