R Munusamy: The true state of our nation
On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma will deliver the first of two State of the Nation Addresses for 2014. Thursday's speech is the annual Opening of Parliament address, while the second will take place when a new government is elected after the May elections. So the taxpayer will cough up R5.7 million for the pomp and ceremony of Thursday's event, for Zuma to announce the year plan for a government whose term comes to an end on 22 April. If there is anything we all need to deal with, it is the true state of our nation - not the one the president will present as his valedictory State of the Nation address for his first term of office.
When Zuma was inaugurated as the President of South Africa on 9 May 2009, he set his targets high and was clearly ambitious about his presidency. After paying tribute to the three men who led South Africa before him, Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, Zuma said:
"Today, as I take this solemn Oath of Office as the Fourth President of the Republic of South Africa, I do so deeply conscious of the responsibilities that you, the people of our country are entrusting in me. I commit myself to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion."
Knowing that people thirsted for the Kool-Aid, Zuma went on to say:
"To achieve all our goals, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of service, probity and integrity. Together we must build a society that prizes excellence and rewards effort, which shuns laziness and incompetence. We must build a society that draws on the capabilities, energy and promise of all its people.
"Fellow South Africans, this is indeed a moment of renewal."
It would be an interesting exercise to find out from Zuma how he thinks he measured up against the standards he himself set. Dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion? After nearly five years at the helm of South Africa, are these the terms that define the Zuma presidency? How about "the highest standards of service, probity and integrity"?
These are questions Zuma would probably like to avoid. What he will present in his speech is the script we have been hearing for several months: that South Africa is a much better place than it was in 1994; that the lives of millions of people have improved due to access to basic services they were deprived of, and that the last five years has been a period of unprecedented growth and development. It is the "good story" the ANC had to tell and which Zuma referred to during the party's anniversary celebrations in January.
Of course all of these are true on paper, but the "real feel" of life in South Africa is a different story - a story that is complex and is difficult to tell.
The country is erupting in service delivery protests because ordinary people living difficult lives in depressed, under-developed, poorly serviced areas do not experience the euphoria of 20 years of democracy that the good news script says they should feel.
There are millions of frustrated, exhausted people living in squalor, deprived of basic services because the municipalities responsible are run inefficiently and incompetently with no concern for the rights and welfare of those affected. There are people waiting for houses, electricity and clean water that will not come anytime soon, and the only vent to their frustration is to wreak havoc on their streets and in their own communities.
When sewers flow down roads alongside dilapidated shacks and children fall into pit toilets and die, it is difficult to share in the excitement of the triumph of 20 years of democracy. And when toddlers are snatched while they are playing and found days later, raped, mutilated and murdered, we have to worry about the state of our society.
Not all of these can be blamed on Zuma - he is not responsible for the evil which lurks in people's minds when they rape, steal or murder. But Zuma is the person who accepted responsibility for the leadership of South Africa and stood at the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings five years ago and pledged:
"Compatriots, today, we enter a new era in the history of our nation, imbued with a resolve to do everything within our means to build a better life for all our people. Today, we renew our struggle to forge a nation that is at peace with itself and the world."
This nation is not at peace with itself. There is an average of 32 protests a day, many of which turn violent. The statistics of rape, and woman and child abuse, is chilling. The already depressed economy is under strain from strikes in the mining industry and the horror of the Marikana massacre is still fresh in people's minds.
Government's elected representatives at all three layers of government are shirking away from having to deal with a society in protest. From President Zuma downwards, elected politicians avoid interfacing with the communities screaming for their attention. It is as if they cannot look the communities in the eye which are being failed every day through weak government.
Their response is to deploy the South African Police Service into these communities, which causes further agitation. Far too often, brute force is employed with fatal consequences. In effect, government is fighting, and sometimes killing, the people they are meant to protect.
This week labour specialist Adcorp released figures which showed that retrenchment levels are at a 10-year high and that the economy shed 36,290 jobs last month. The StatsSA Quarterly Labour Force Survey, however, found that employment increased by 141,000 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared to the third quarter. But the unemployment rate remains dangerously high at 24.1%. The upswing is by no means a triumph as people with no jobs have no hope of bettering their lives, improving their living conditions or escaping the poverty trap.
The ANC has pledged in its election manifesto to create six million job opportunities, which has been met with scepticism due to the ANC's continued difficulty to deliver on the job promises it made in the past. This is one area where the party needs to move beyond rhetoric and empty promises if it is to prevent the country imploding. The Democratic Alliance has honed in on the fact that job creation is the ANC's Achilles heel and is therefore agitating to expose that the six million-job promise is unattainable.
It is not clear what exactly Zuma will be outlining in his State of the Nation address on Thursday as the term of his government ends on 22 April. The country is stepping into full election mode now, so while government will continue to operate, it will not do so optimally as focus will be on the campaign trail. Realistically, the president can only present a true game plan after the election, with a new mandate and a new team in Cabinet.
For now, Zuma is treading water. He has had an awful first term with the horror of Marikana and the shame of the costly state-funded security upgrades at his Nkandla residence forever casting a shadow on his presidency. While there have been successes in the area of HIV and Aids treatment and infrastructure development, Zuma will battle to counter accusations of corruption and patronage thriving on his watch.
If only Zuma turned out to be the president he himself described five years ago - one who provided true leadership and served with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion. If only he set the example and led a people-centred government which citizens could be proud of instead of wanting to burn buildings associated with it.
What a State of the Nation address Zuma would be delivering had he done so. The good story he is desperate to project would have told itself. There would have been no need to belt out statistics that sound impressive but people simply shrug at. He would have been a leader worthy of standing at the place where Nelson Mandela once stood and inspired and united a nation.
Our nation could have been soaring. We could have been a contender. We could. But we're not. And no sweet-talking will be able to change that simple fact: We're not.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.