A natural sense of optimism usually opens a New Year in the minds of humanity. And so it similarly does with the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by the State President in the South African Parliament. A sense of expectation usually prevails in the hope that positive corrective measures to alleviate policy failures and challenges will be both recognized and efficiently implemented.
This year is no different in sentiment, but as in previous years is unlikely to deliver the goods.
Analysts have been at pains in recent weeks to lay the blame on South Africa’s increasingly serious economic and governance woes on President Jacob Zuma. Perhaps though, the President should rather be seen as the messenger of a larger political party in disarray and much more vulnerable than ever before.
The ANC is witnessing its important Trade Union alliance become increasingly fragile and possibly splitting to create an alternative (and workerist) “United Front”.
It is also simultaneously watching a potential nightmare scenario unfold in which the ruling party begins to lose overall control of critical Metro’s – particularly in Gauteng – in the next local government elections just over a year away.
Thirdly, it faces a new style of vociferous and robust opposition from the EFF and increasingly from the DA as well.
Finally, the ANC is seeing its service delivery crumble as deteriorating infrastructure (especially electricity) begins to take its toll on economic growth as well as job creation and revenue generation.
These four key factors contribute to a fragility never before experienced by the ANC in government. When you become fragile, there are always options. Do you implement a sea-change policy swing to counter these trends – with considerable political risk attached – or do you dig-in-your heels in an attempt to hold onto power for as long as possible?
Notwithstanding the personal issues surrounding Jacob Zuma, a more fragile ANC seems to be shoring up its power rather than risking its cohesiveness with risky policy reversals.
The NDP seems to have been largely shunted to the out tray while the focus now is on enabling the State (and by direct implication the ANC) to capture broader oversight institutions like the SIU, the Hawks and even attacking the independence of SARS. Capturing elements of the mass media beyond the SABC – like that of Independent Newspapers – are now a clear goal of a spooked ruling party.
While the primary beneficiary might well be President Zuma, capturing these bodies will provide the broader party with a degree of impunity and protection as a more confrontational political environment emerges. And, as President Zuma has cemented his hold on power through ‘big man’ appointments and business linkages, the role of the President and the party has become more intertwined than ever before. Ironically, this is antithetical to ANC tradition in which the President serves at the will of the party.
We have moved to a point where the party is increasingly serving the President – and his coat-tails. Future schisms in the ANC will probably coalesce around those that want to perpetuate their hold on power, those outsiders waiting to get a piece of the action – and those who would prefer a new, more ethical approach to political and economy stability.
The ANC is therefore much more uneasy as it approaches the 2016 poll. The early part of 2015 has given us an indication that a more ‘populist’ tone may well be the dominant current sweeping through the party as possible losses to the Left (Unions) and EFF begin to bite.
Shoring up support by increasing racial invective (Jan Van Riebeeck et al) and targeting land ownership are direct manifestations of this. Given this SONA is unlikely to alter this course.
The ANC is also keen to keep whatever is left of its ideological path relatively intact. With trade unions breathing down its electoral neck, don’t expect any move towards liberalising State control of ailing enterprises like Eskom.
Government will once again try to ‘turn-around’ SAA, the SABC and the Post Office amongst other SOE disasters on their own. Policy paralysis is hardly conducive to any major SONA announcements.
Real service delivery in South Africa requires an efficient State. SONA is unlikely to address this issue with its real solution – the de-politicization of the bureaucracy. The ANC (and not just Jacob Zuma) have developed some distinctly bad habits since 1994 in politicising most aspects of the State. This is often perpetuated by the appointment of politically connected mediocrity that debilitates efficiency.
So with ideological battles constricting policy debates, a bureaucracy so entrenched in bad habits that its functioning is largely hit-and-miss and personal issues unresolved, is there any room for President Zuma to lift the nation out of its scepticism and frustration?
Ultimately, our President would do well to dwell on an improvement in sentiment. What he cannot accomplish in terms of having political courage to tackle policy – or being able to rescue the civil service – or indeed being able to deal with his own personal controversies can –remarkably – still be turned around.
The President can re-invent the inclusivity of the Nelson Mandela era that is rapidly dissipating. He can talk openly and honestly about the problems of low growth. Above all else, he can – even theatrically – put down his prepared text and talk directly to South Africans in a frank yet empathetic manner on issues of creeping racism (from all sides), the scourge of xenophobia and the necessity to make the country globally competitive again.
Whatever our differences with Jacob Zuma are, he needs to re-invent himself as the President of all South Africans – not just that of ANC voters. If he succeeds in that, he himself may be remarkably surprised at just how forgiving all South Africans can be.
Zuma might’ve tied his party’s hands with his own actions. But the broader ANC has been willing participants in failing to entrench accountability, make tough policy choices and develop state efficiencies.
Amidst their growing vulnerability, comes yet another chance for a politically-ailing President to use well-chosen words and body language to revive not only his standing but that of the nation. Every President has it in them – but don’t expect too much. Better to be surprised than to hold your breath come Thursday – it’s much safer.