State of the Nation fails to inspire

It was President Jacob Zuma's moment to shine. The 2013 State of the Nation address comes at a time when Zuma is politically strongest and is able to make bold moves to give direction to a beleaguered, battle-weary, divided nation. He instead took the low road and tapped into many of the burning issues on the national agenda, but did not provide hope, inspiration or a tangible way forward. It was not the big speech South Africa wanted to hear and certainly not the way to begin an election year.

It was billed as the speech that would finally provide detail and certainty on issues such as youth employment, the National Development Plan (NDP) and improving the quality of education. The ground had already been prepared by the ANC via its secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who said quite conclusively earlier this month after the ANC lekgotla that these would be the central components of the 2013 government programme of action.

Instead, President Jacob Zuma simply went through the motions when he delivered the State of the Nation Address on Thursday night, glossing over the big issues, with no decisive announcements to define the speech by. In fact, he reeled back on some of the decisions taken by the ANC, such as the multi-identity youth wage subsidy.

Zuma first announced the subsidy in his opening of Parliament address in 2010, but it was stymied by Cosatu's fierce opposition to it. The trade union federation believes the scheme would allow cheap labour into the economy, which would threaten the job security of their own members. But Mantashe said after the lekgotla that the ANC "broadly supported the idea of the Youth Employment Support and Incentive Schemes".

"These would broadly cover providing youth with well-supervised opportunities to practice skilled work such as the various forms of on-the-job training. These schemes will target young people marginalised from labour force participation, unemployed young graduates and students in higher education that need to complement formal study with practical work," Mantashe said.

The ANC went as far as tackling Cosatu to lay the foundation for the president's big announcement on the matter. But Zuma has kicked the issue back into touch, saying the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) would sign an accord on youth employment incentives later this month.

Speaking outside Parliament after the speech, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said he was glad there was "no mention of the youth wage subsidy" in Zuma's address.

Zuma said the incentives agreed to at Nedlac would add to what government is already doing to empower the youth, including apprenticeships and learnerships at state owned companies, and the National Rural Youth Services Corps, which has enrolled 11,740 young people in various training programmes.

The Democratic Alliance's finance spokesman Tim Harris said without the youth wage subsidy, the ideas on youth jobs were "pathetic". "They have folded completely to Cosatu's objections," Harris said.

Mantashe told Daily Maverick that people get "obsessed with terms" and lose track of the objectives of the youth incentive scheme. He said the ANC has said consistently that there was no "silver bullet" to tackle youth unemployment and whatever measures were adopted would be "multi-pronged".

Zuma also dialled it back on the ANC's intention to make education an "essential service". Mantashe had announced: "As number one priority, the ANC and its government will leave no stone unturned in making education an essential service". Again, Cosatu and teachers union Sadtu in particular protested vehemently.

The president softened the announcement: "We want to see everyone in the country realising that education is an essential service for our nation. By saying education is an essential service we are not taking away the constitutional rights of teachers as workers such as the right to strike. It means we want the education sector and society as a whole to take education more seriously than is happening currently."

And teachers can now look forward to higher salaries as an increased incentive to do their jobs.

"All successful societies have one thing in common - they invested in education. Decent salaries and conditions of service will play an important role in attracting, motivating and retaining skilled teachers. In this regard, we will establish a presidential remuneration commission which will investigate the appropriateness of the remuneration and conditions of service provided by the state to all its employees," Zuma said.

While the NDP might have provided the guide to the speech, it was not the golden thread running through, as was expected.

A quite unexpected announcement, though, was that the Minister of Finance would be commissioning a study of current tax policies "to make sure that we have an appropriate revenue base to support public spending".

"Ensuring that the public services we provide our people today can continue to be provided to our people tomorrow, requires that we have suitable tax policies to generate sufficient revenue to pay for these services. Part of this study will evaluate the current mining royalties regime, with regard to its ability to suitably serve our people," Zuma said.

Where Zuma had a real opportunity to strike the right note was the issue of sexual abuse and rape. The national outrage triggered by the gang rape and mutilation of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysens earlier this month would have allowed him to soothe the anger and emotion in the country by displaying the appropriate sensitivity and urgency to assist victims and ensure the support of the justice system to deal with perpetrators.

While Zuma dedicated a fair amount of time on gender-based violence, and said, "I have directed law enforcement agencies to treat these cases with the utmost urgency and importance", he did not give and impression that there was now a war on sexual offenders. At a time when the country is steeped in shock and disgrace over the recent spate of brutal rapes and killings of women, he did not step up to provide the tactical and firm leadership required on the matter.

The big legal crackdown was instead directed at violent protestors, ironically as a result of the Marikana massacre, in which striking mineworkers were killed and injured by the police. While the state is still delaying on adapting the justice system to support women and child victims of abuse, special courts to ensure swift justice are being set up to deal with the proliferation of violent protest action. Dealing with the sources of community and worker frustrations, however, is not part of the solution.

"I have instructed the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster to put measures in place, with immediate effect, to ensure that any incidents of violent protest are acted upon, investigated and prosecuted. Courts will be allocated to deal with such cases on a prioritised roll. The law must be enforced and it must be seen to be enforced - fairly, effectively and expeditiously," Zuma said.

Even through the political differences, many people in the House on Thursday wished that this would be the moment Zuma read the mood of the nation and rose to lead and provide hope. Even Thabo Mbeki, the man who fired him and contested the ANC leadership, was in the gallery to witness the moment. As soon as Zuma read the final line, Mbeki tapped his watch and walked out with his wife Zanele. ANC MPs did not burst into song as they usually do on the occasion.

DA national spokesman, Mmusi Maimane, commented as he walked out of Parliament that he felt disappointed by the speech and felt as if he had been on a "three-hour long 1Time flight".

IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini said the speech would not have "any impact or capacity to tackle unemployment or the catastrophe of education".

"It commits to nothing and envisages nothing. And it was dreadfully boring in the process."

At the start of his address, Zuma apologised that he had flu. But it was not his intermittent stops to blow his nose or the fact that Olympian (and paralympian) Oscar Pistorius was the story of the day internationally due to his arrest for the murder of his girlfriend that took away the big moment. It was that Zuma is unable to be the leader South Africa is crying out for right now.

The 2013 State of the Nation address was unremarkable and a disappointment. Opposition parties are now waiting to lay into Zuma during the debate on the speech next week. It is likely to be brutal. Ordinary South Africans, however, do not get to challenge or express their feelings about the president's message to them. For many, the speech is simply forgettable. The dearth of leadership in South Africa, however, is not.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.