Disruptions and platitudes at South African President Zuma’s State of the Nation address

Disruption and vagueness marked last week’s presidential State of the Nation Address (SONA), on February 11 in Cape Town. The disruption, unsurprisingly, was caused mainly by the Economic Freedom Fighters (E.F.F.), with markedly less support from the Democratic Alliance (D.A.) than was the case last year. For vagueness we had the address itself, delivered by a President Jacob Zuma who seemed less than his ebullient self, even subdued. Though a few points were made that deserve analysis, they were mostly quite vague and couched in language more aspirational than action-oriented. The debate in Parliament following SONA has been what might be expected: a rough and aggressive start, with members slugging away (verbally, I must add) at each other. It is unlikely that it will have any effect on President Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (A.N.C.).

As anticipated, the E.F.F. disrupted the speech by calling for “points of order.” In what seemed a carefully choreographed ritual, successive E.F.F. legislators interrupted the proceedings and were called upon to sit down by the Speakers of both chambers of Parliament. They finally were ejected after Julius Malema’s diatribe against Mr. Zuma’s abilities as a president and his chant of “Zuptas Must Fall” (combining the name of President Zuma and the politically influential Gupta family).

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Did this disruption, however well-planned it might have been, achieve anything? Compared to last year, my sense is: very little. The E.F.F.’s disruption and delay of the inevitable came across as petulant, even childish. Apart from Congress of the People and its leader Mosiuoa Lekota, who walked out before the E.F.F.’s departure, most other opposition parties seemed more ready to listen to Mr. Zuma’s speech. The tenor of D.A. leader Mmusi Maimane’s intervention (echoed by Piet Mulder of Freedom Front Plus) might be summed up as “Let’s just get on with it.” Inkatha’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s suggestion—to put the decision to proceed to the vote—was similarly conciliatory in intent: a snap vote with an overwhelming A.N.C. majority would have formally at least ended the “debate,” whatever the proprieties of parliamentary procedure.

It’s worth wondering what the E.F.F. might have done. They should at least have let Mr. Zuma get through the commemorations and welcomes to special guests; I found their disruption at this point both irritating and insulting to the guests and to the memory of events far greater than the present party-political wrangling. In fact, had the E.F.F. waited until Mr. Zuma was into his speech and then responded with their “Zuptas Must Fall” chant and departure, their actions might have had greater impact. I suspect, rather, that their final expulsion came as a relief to those watching the spectacle on television and within Parliament, including most of the opposition parties.

No doubt everyone wanted to see whether, or how, Mr. Zuma would respond to the recent Constitutional Court hearings as much as to get a sense of how he and the A.N.C. saw the state of the nation. If so, they were disappointed in the first instance, and arguably on the second.

Apart from a few vague promises, SONA 2016 came across as bland, vague and uninspiring. Mr. Zuma’s commitment to a more frugal Parliament and administration was the most direct and decisive part of the speech and is to be welcomed. Whether this will be achieved remains to be seen. While we should give the president the benefit of the doubt today and in days to come, the next few months will be crucial to see if there will indeed be follow-through.

The economy featured strongly in the speech, though here I sensed a certain equivocation about the extent of the crisis we face—not helped by attempts to excuse the government’s failure to address problems with the global economic downturn and the drought. While both are significant factors, Mr. Zuma didn’t address adequately the fundamental problems we face: low local and international investor confidence, failing infrastructure and unemployable citizens crippled by a dire educational system. Government policies, poor appointments and indecision are most to blame for all three of these problems.

Granted, Mr. Zuma acknowledged the need for greater cooperation between government, business and labor, and he recognized that many state-owned enterprises were failing. He conceded that some of the latter might need to be privatized. Similarly, he admitted that prolonged and often violent strikes have damaged the economy. Unfortunately, he couched these points in vague and indecisive terms. Very little was forthcoming in terms of direct action and timelines to roll out new policies.

As I listened to the speech, I noted time and again the way vague language was used: “is being finalized,” “in the first stages of,” “solution is being sought,” “we are trying to solve this challenge” and similar invocations of the indefinite present and passive voice suggested to me a generalized indecisiveness, lack of clarity of vision and perhaps even a leader who has lost the plot. Even where solutions were directly expressed—the proposed commission of inquiry into higher education in response to the “fees must fall” protests—they came across as stalling tactics rather than solutions.

Almost everyone I asked who saw SONA 2016 found it uninspiring. Some called it a “non-event,” a combination of tedious political theatrics and “waffle.” Shortly after SONA ended, the South African rand dropped against the U.S. dollar and the Euro. While it is hard, and unfair, to say that SONA caused this drop, it will be interesting to see how the economy fares in the next few weeks. What is clear to me from SONA 2016 is that from the point of view of innovative ideas to solve our nation’s problems, the government of South Africa is almost bankrupt.

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