The delivery of the state of the nation address is an annual opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the year gone by, to highlight the challenges of the future and to announce the plans of government for the immediate trajectory of the country in the year ahead.
Three fundamental characteristics of the state of play in the affairs of state in SA today render it impossible for President Zuma to deliver the SONA that SA needs in these troubled times: these are Trust, Confidence and Faith.
On trust: even before the Nenegate “three finance ministers in four days” debacle of December 2015, and before the flip-flop on the Nkandla scandal early in February 2016, which involved him in selling senior cabinet members and parliamentarians down the Nile, the trust rating of the president was in trouble. Scientific research by Afrobarometer, published in 2015, indicates that two thirds of the people of SA did not trust the president before these two latest eruptions in his chequered career in politics. He is simply too conflicted and compromised, too crooked and too corrupt to enjoy, or even deserve, the trust of the people he is supposed to lead. Indeed, this toxic combination ought to render him unfit for the high office he holds.
It is political leadership with integrity and probity that is at present sorely lacking in SA. The credibility of the president is at an all-time low. Early in his presidency the distrust statistic was as low as 17%; recent events suggest that it must now be well in excess of the 66% measured last year. When more than two out of three voters don’t trust their president, then attaching any credence to what is made public during the SONA becomes a problem.
South Africans cannot be blamed for not trusting their president. Indeed, the cabinet itself has good grounds not to trust him. Ask former Minister Nene, as he anxiously awaits news on his career. The still unresolved 783 charges of corruption arising out of the successful fraud prosecution of Schabir Shaik, the allegations that Shaik corrupted the president, his problematic “business relationship” with the Gupta family, the unsatisfactory handling of the “Guptagate” landing at Waterkloof airbase, the Nkandla saga and the President’s firm attachment to the rolling out of a massively expensive nuclear build programme, one which the country can ill afford – all these features, and many more, conspire to undermine trust in the leadership of the land.
A leader who is not trusted cannot deliver a credible SONA.
On confidence: It is business confidence in the future of the economy of the country that has virtually evaporated during the term of office of the president. It is not that he is unaware of the challenges of unemployment, under-employment, 700,000 high school drop-outs each year seeking unskilled jobs that do not exist and the dysfunction in the education system from ECD to tertiary levels. These factors and rising inflation rates do not inspire business confidence, nor did Nenegate.
It is a matter of public record that in his 2015 SONA President Zuma said:
“Our economy needs a major push forward. We would like to share with you our nine point plan to ignite growth and create jobs.
- Resolving the energy challenge.
- Revitalizing agriculture and the agro-processing value chain.
- Advancing beneficiation or adding value to our mineral wealth.
- More effective implementation of a higher impact Industrial Policy Action Plan.
- Encouraging private sector investment.
- Moderating workplace conflict.
- Unlocking the potential of SMMEs, cooperatives, township and rural enterprises.
- State reform and boosting the role of state owned companies, ICT infrastructure or broadband roll out, water, sanitation and transport infrastructure as well as
- Operation Phakisa aimed growing the ocean economy and other sectors.”
Nothing, or, at best, very little has come of this nine point plan. A general strike by COSATU is planned from 1 March 2016, private sector investment has been further discouraged by Nenegate, rising inflation and the high unemployment rate. SA has been rated third worst in the world on the “Economic Misery Index” put out by Bloomberg, on which only the basket cases in Venezuela and Argentina outrank the beloved country. SA has surpassed the misery in Greece and Ukraine due to the high unemployment rate in the land and our rising inflation figures. The new legislation around expropriation of property and also the promotion and protection of investment will serve to dampen foreign direct investment in SA in the future according to the CE of the SA German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Matthias Boddenberg. The president taking along a communist and a trade unionist to Davos to declare SA “open for business” went down like a lead balloon. The rand has plummeted since Nenegate and the stock exchange has lost billions in value.
Yet, the president continues to try. In the 2016 January 8th statement of the National Executive Committee of the ANC delivered by the president in Rustenburg, and with specific reference to local government, it was stated that:
“The ANC is championing the Back to Basics approach, which is based on five pillars:
- Putting people first;
- Ensuring delivery of basic services;
- Good governance;
- Sound financial management;
- Building strong institutions.
We call upon all members of our movement, wherever they are deployed, to intensify the Back to Basics programme and ensure that:
- There is political stability and good governance at municipal level.
- There is direct hands-on support for and monitoring of the work of municipalities.
- There is meaningful participation of citizens in municipalities.
- Qualified and experienced officials are appointed in municipalities.
- Bottlenecks in the provision of housing, water and sanitation are removed.
- There is a vigorous and targeted approach to fighting corruption and fraud.”
Only the gullible and the deluded attach any credence to these utterances. The media has not analysed them on their merits, the commentariat shuns them. They envisage implementation of the Constitution, not an area in which government has excelled.
On faith: The net effect of the lack of trust and confidence already in evidence is that astute observers have lost, or are losing, faith in the ability of the government to build strong institutions and tackle corruption, our public enemy number one. The building of strong institutions is one of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in September 2015. Without strong institutions constitutional democracy of the kind envisaged by the founders of the new SA dispensation is in trouble. Fragile states fail in the absence of strong institutions.
Institutions like the Scorpions, the National Prosecuting Authority (until Vusi Pikoli was illegally dismissed) and SARS (until relatively recently) have been systematically undermined during the president’s tenure of office. The leadership of SAPS is in disarray; our last three police commissioners did nothing to distinguish themselves in office; with the fitness for office of the current incumbent under investigation. Her two predecessors left office in disgrace, one, Jackie Selebi, bound for jail and one, Bheki Cele, for the cabinet. A former cabinet minister, Dina Pule, leads a charmed life because there is no political will to prosecute her for her abuse of office.
There are two steps the president could, but won’t, take to redeem his beleaguered legacy. He could announce during the SONA that a socio-economic CODESA is to be urgently convened for the purpose of restoring trust, confidence and faith in the institutions and trajectory of our young democracy. And to show he really means it, he could advocate the creation of an Integrity Commission: independent, specialised, properly trained and funded in a guaranteed fashion, with personnel who enjoy security of tenure of office. Scorpions on steroids are needed to plug the loss of billions to corrupt activities each year. The country needs this money in our time of drought and distress.
The Constitution, with its justiciable Bill of Rights, provides a good deal of inspiration to those seeking a “back to basics” approach and the “major push forward” which the SA economy still needs. Unerringly implementing the values and principles which ought to inform the conduct of the public administration would be a good start that would lead to the immediate abandonment of cadre deployment in the civil service, an idea to which the president pays ambiguous lip service. Public procurement that is fair, equitable, competitive, cost-effective and transparent would transform the conduct of SOEs and the public administration. Constitutionally compliant treatment of what the President calls “the energy challenge” would lead to the immediate abandonment of the nuclear build dream, which has become a less than cost-effective and uncompetitive nightmare.
Keeping the foundational values of accountability, openness and responsiveness at the forefront of economic decision-making would impact strongly on loss-making SOEs, in particular SAA and the Post Office.
A truly “back to basics” administration would keep the notions of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms” set out in section 1 of the Constitution at the forefront of policy-making as it grapples with the challenges of turning the ship of state away from junk status and even possible failure. Such an administration would take its obligations to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil” the rights guaranteed to all in the Bill of Rights most seriously and would overhaul the basic education system urgently as a means of saving from unemployment the more than 700,000 students who drop out of school before even reaching matric level each year.
The lot of the poor and informally housed could be improved and many jobs could be created by the implementation of an innovative and affordable plan to make shacks a thing of the past. Putting people to work on building renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind based, that could supplement the Eskom grid in the short term may render the hugely expensive, and arguably unnecessary, nuclear build programme redundant. The revitalisation of agriculture has to take on board the fact that SA is a water scarce country. Tunnel farming along the lines practiced in the Middle East and Southern Europe may be indicated if food security is to be maintained.
Without public trust in his leadership, without business confidence in the future of the economy and without universal faith in the strength of our institutions of state on his watch, the president is incapable of delivering the SONA so badly needed now.
Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now(www.accountabilitynow.org.za)
10 February, 2016