Sona: Zuma’s new bag of old remedies
Okay, South Africa, let's try this again. President Jacob Zuma's first term in office did not really go according to plan and now looks like an old bombsite littered with debris and deep craters. On Tuesday night, he set the country's fifth Parliament in motion at a time when the economic woes are top of the agenda. There was a lot of interest in how Zuma would look - after returning from sick leave - almost more than what he had to say. This was Zuma's seventh State of the Nation Address (Sona), and there was frankly little expectation that he would deliver a jaw-dropper of a speech. There were some interventions in problem areas, but the rest was very much made up of old ideas in new packaging. Zuma is tired. Perhaps change is coming.
For someone who has never before served in government, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa took to the position of Acting President rather comfortably. Not only did he have to step in for President Jacob Zuma at all public events over the 11 days the president was on sick leave, he also had to take charge of discussions at the ANC and Cabinet lekgotlas preceding the State of the Nation Address.
The speech, however, was very much Zuma's. If Ramaphosa has any influence on the direction the ANC and government are taking, it is not yet evident. The presidency did not disclose exact reasons for Zuma's short hospital stay and need for time off. Zuma appeared to have lost weight and was unsteady on his feet when he appeared at Parliament. There were obvious signs that he was not exerting himself, such as not walking the length of the red carpet as is customary. The Mail & Guardian reported that he leaned heavily on Speaker Baleka Mbete as they walked down the stairs to the National Assembly chamber.
Zuma is clearly not back to full health but the risk of him not delivering the first Sona of his second term would have fuelled speculation that he is really ill and might look to retire early. This Sona was meant to be the big reveal of the ANC's plans for "radical economic transformation" - the most unspecific, ill-defined concept in ANC parlance to date. Zuma tried to talk it up in the speech, even though the "radical" part is still not evident.
"As we enter the second phase of our transition from Apartheid to a national democratic society, we have to embark on radical socio-economic transformation to push back the triple challenges. Change will not come about without some far-reaching interventions," he said.
"We have set a growth target of 5% by 2019. To achieve this, we will embark on various measures and interventions to jump-start the economy."
Later in the speech Zuma said: Our radical socio-economic transformation programme will be taken further with the implementation of the Industrial Policy Action Plan. "We will promote local procurement and increase domestic production by having the state buy 75% of goods and services from South African producers. We will utilise the renewable energy sector, the manufacturing of buses, Transnet's R50 billion locomotive contracts and PRASA's passenger rail projects, among others, to promote local content and boost growth."
He went on to say that government would over the next five years promote regional economic development and industrialisation, through the creation of Special Economic Zones around the country. "We will continue to support through incentives, the competitiveness of the auto, clothing, leather, footwear and textile industries, which are labour intensive."
Curiously, Zuma did not mention the ratings downgrade by Fitch and Standard & Poor's last week, even though these might have long-term consequences for the economy and impact on investor confidence. He noted that the low level of investments was a key constraint to economic growth, adding, "We are determined to work with the private sector to remove obstacles to investment."
Like with the last Sona in February, Zuma dedicated a significant portion of the speech to the turbulence in the mining sector. He said due to the impact of the "untenable labour relations environment" on the economy, it is critical for social partners to meet and deliberate "on the violent nature and duration of the strikes".
"The social partners will also need to deliberate on wage inequality. On our side as government we will during this term investigate the possibility of a national minimum wage as one of the key mechanisms to reduce the income inequality." Zuma said Ramaphosa would convene a dialogue of social partners within the ambit of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was quick to point out that there was a slight change in terminology regarding the issue of a national minimum wage. In its election manifesto, the ANC said it would investigate the "modalities" of implementing a minimum wage, which gave hope to its alliance partner that its demands were being considered seriously. Zuma said on Thursday that government would investigate the "possibility" of a national minimum wage, meaning it might or might not happen.
While government is looking to create stability in the mining sector, such backtracking on earlier promises might anger workers further and give parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) the ability to spread their reach. EFF leader Julius Malema said in his reaction to the speech that there were no new announcements with regards to the mining sector and that Zuma had merely been reiterating what was contained in the mining charter.
Zuma said government would play its part in the implementation of the Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry entered into by labour, business and government last year, under the leadership of former Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. However, the process will now be led by Zuma, conveying that the matter would be driven from the highest level and given top priority.
In addition to this, Zuma announced the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee on the revitalisation of distressed mining communities under the leadership of Jeff Radebe, the Minister for Planning, Performance Monitoring and Evaluation. Other members of the committee include the ministers of Mineral Resources, Water and Sanitation, Trade and Industry, Social Development, Labour, Human Settlements, Health, Economic Development and Finance.
"To further promote improved living conditions for mine workers, government is monitoring the compliance of mining companies with Mining Charter targets, relating to improving the living conditions of workers. Companies are expected to convert or upgrade hostels into family units, attain the occupancy rate of one person per room and also facilitate home ownership options for mine workers," Zuma said.
Radebe said afterwards that despite this being a mineral-rich country, ordinary workers had nothing to show for their contribution to keeping the mining industry functioning. He said the lesson from the long-running strike on the platinum belt was that the plight of the workers should never be ignored.
Zuma's speech also sought to quell panic and concerns about the energy supply. "We need to respond decisively to the country's energy constraints in order to create a conducive environment for growth. The successful electrification programme which has changed the lives of many households was achieved by tapping into artificial electricity reserves, which had not been designed to cater for mass energy distribution," Zuma said.
"This situation calls for a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy." He said nuclear had the possibility of generating well over 9,000 megawatts, while shale gas was recognised as "a game changer for our economy". "We will pursue the shale gas option within the framework of our good environmental laws."
"Plans on the financing of the next large coal fired power station, Coal 3, will be speeded [sic] up so that the procurement process can commence," Zuma said.
On infrastructure development, the president said over the next three years, R847 billion would be on the implementation of the National Infrastructure Plan.
Government is making a definite shift in focus to local government, with its new point man Pravin Gordhan with an overflowing in-tray. Zuma said that the municipalities had been evaluated, and this indicated that they needed support.
"We have inspected their financial management, how they work within legislative processes as well as their ability to roll out projects and to address capacity constraints. We have also looked at how they respond to service delivery protests," he said.
Gordhan is now heading an inter-ministerial task team on service delivery to tackle these challenges. Gordhan said the team would focus on better co-ordination between national departments and municipalities to synchronise delivery. They would also be "listening carefully" and respond with "greater urgency" to areas of discontent and understand the unhappiness of communities.
It was not a speech that would have caused the international ratings agencies to have a rethink or one that showed the way in South Africa's economic crisis. But Zuma seems to be drawing in point men to deal with trouble areas and take the pressure off himself. His bout of fatigue demonstrated to everyone and himself that he could give others around him greater powers and still be the man in charge.
Perhaps there will be more of this in months to come. On Wednesday, the true test of Zuma's strength will come when he has to sit through the debate on his speech, and will for the first time have to face the newly configured opposition. Democratic Alliance Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane and Malema will make their maiden speeches in the House on Wednesday, and will both be looking to draw first blood.
Unfortunately for Zuma, this is not something he will be able to pass on to Ramaphosa or anyone else. He will have to roll with the punches and show he is still Number One.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.