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Judith February: Sona, so what?

Much of the recent State of the Nation Address (Sona) was indeed eclipsed by the Parliamentary debate after President Zuma's speech. For those of us 'Parliamentary watchers', it's been a while since a post-Sona debate was that lively, thanks to the new red berets, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

It's a pity that Julius Malema's speech degenerated into insult because he had a few good points to make. It was an unsatisfactory debate though, as politician after politician seemed to think that hurling an insult was akin to making an argument and persuading one's opponent intellectually.

Lindiwe Sisulu came close to making the insult an art form, calling Democratic Alliance MP, Musi Maimane, a 'hired native'. If that is the best she can do, Maimane can rest easy, though it must be said his maiden speech itself was somewhat insipid.

Bantu Holomisa typically injected thoughtfulness into the debate, however. Despite the small representation by the United Democratic Movement in Parliament, Holomisa remains a class politician, and a sincere one. We have his tenacity to thank for exposing Pansy Tlakula's alleged conflicts of interest and for persisting in getting to the bottom of the sorry Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) leasing matter.

'Honourable' Malema seems to have ruffled African National Congress (ANC) feathers and that of National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chair, Thandi Modise, by saying the government was responsible for the killing of the Marikana miners in 2012.

As the Farlam Commission proceeds slowly and painfully with some hiccups in the testimony of 'Mr X', realpolitik was playing itself out in the horse-shoe chamber which is the National Assembly. It seems that Modise has over-played her hand and that Malema is sticking to his assertions about Marikana.

It is obvious that the ANC would be sensitive in relation to Marikana. It must surely be the biggest blight on our post-1994 democracy, this mowing down of miners by an inept police force? And who has yet to take political responsibility for it? Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Police, has been shunted to the arts and culture ministry (where politicians go to die), yet Riyah Phiyega remains in her position as national commissioner. Hopefully, the Farlam Commission will wend its way to a conclusion soon and the long-awaited answers will be forthcoming for the country and especially the families of the dead miners. Is it not ironic that Thandi Modise was the Premier of North West Province at the time of the Marikana massacre and it took her a good while before she was able to in fact visit the miners' families?

So while Zuma might have been able to ignore what Malema had said in his maiden speech to Parliament, it was Marikana everyone remembered about this past political week.

The Sona still remains the key topic of discussion, as does the President's health. It seems as if the so-called 'commentariat' is divided on whether the speech was good, bad or indifferent. It seems to be a definite 'no-no' to describe the speech as 'lacklustre' (as this writer did…), because some say we should not be concerned about tone or style but rather substance. Of course, by now we know that Zuma is neither Barack Obama nor Bill Clinton and so the expectations about delivery are pretty low. Yet, it would seem perfectly legitimate to expect something livelier from our president after five years and a renewed mandate.

Having said that, we would do well to remember too that Nelson Mandela, for all his qualities, was a rather wooden speech-maker. Yet, it was the moral authority and gravitas which Mandela imbued which allowed him to pull off just about any speech (and gaffe) with extraordinary panache, intelligence and skill. Who could forget Madiba's dressing down of FW De Klerk during the Codesa negotiations in July 1992? It was a speech which will be remembered for its (literally) cutting edge. Mandela's credibility and his integrity were what stood out first and foremost above his rhetorical skills.

Zuma is lacking in relation to both credibility and integrity and so there is a legitimacy deficit almost from the get-go. And after five years of being in office, the gap has widened even more. Yet despite this we expect the president to set out a vision which seeks to galvanise our very divided society. On days like last Tuesday or last Friday when the president replied to the debate in Parliament, we look to Zuma to draw us into his vision of a society able to meet its challenges and a government able to lead from the front. Yet, what we got was indeed lacklustre, essentially including three central ideas upfront, namely the social dialogue between government, business and labour which will be channelled through the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) and led by deputy president Cyril Rampahosa, that the post-Marikana 'Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry' would be led by the president himself now and that the inter-ministerial committee on the 'Revitalisation of Distressed Mining Communities' would be led by Jeff Radebe who announced later that, 'our people need dignity'. Quite.

The social dialogue initiative is sorely needed, as is the rejuvenation of Nedlac which has become largely moribund over the years. Our negotiated transition was a singular triumph for South Africans' ability to talk and win arguments by the power of persuasion. In recent times it seems as if the one who shouts the loudest wins the argument.

For the rest, it was all somewhat pedestrian, with virtually nothing about corruption and the claims of a school having been built each week in the Eastern Cape already being exposed as not quite the truth. In addition, the 1 million agriculture jobs to be created by 2030 seems somewhat far-fetched, as does 5% growth by 2019 when we are not even exactly sure when Medupi will come on-stream. Preferring nuclear energy as Cosatu has subsequently said, is undermining the need for a diverse energy mix even though government has paid lip service to this diversification. When one hears nuclear, one sees the French and the Russians arriving with bids and cash and a small Cabinet sub-committee doing the deals. Somehow the arms deal comes to mind?

Performance management agreements for ministers are not new - that was, after all, what Collins Chabane was hired to oversee when he was in the Ministry of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation. And in fact, prohibiting public servants from doing business with the state is old news since Lindiwe Sisulu successfully steered the Public Administration Management Bill through Parliament. The question is whether there is the political will to implement all these plans and processes? The country is awash with strategic plans and performance management plans yet to what end? The temptation to file bits of paper seems great, yet substantive delivery remains hamstrung by the things Zuma did not talk about: vested interests, corruption and tenderpreneurs.

Yes, the economy was 'centre-stage' but in a week of downgrades and with an impasse on the platinum belt, what else could be? We should take care not to set our sights so low that we somehow believe that Zuma's leadership is sufficient and that the path we are on will deliver sustained results by plugging the leaks and papering over the cracks.

So, if we forget soaring rhetoric and focus on the substance, we find that even then we still have more questions than answers.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).