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OPINION: Sona, the president under pressure

President Zuma's previous appearance in Parliament ended badly, to say the least. With EFF MPs shouting 'Pay back the money' as they demanded answers on Nkandla, Zuma was spirited out of the House. He has since then judiciously avoided Parliament.

Yet, on 12 February, the President has to come to Parliament to deliver his State of the Nation Address. That is a commitment he cannot renege on. The EFF has been threatening to disrupt the event if Zuma does not agree to answer questions before then. Whether the EFF will stay true to their word and disrupt proceedings remains to be seen.

The Parliamentary landscape has changed irrevocably since last year's elections which saw the EFF parachute into Parliament on the back of 1 million votes and 24 seats in Parliament. Since then the ANC has shown itself completely unable to deal with 'one of its own' on the opposition benches. The EFF, on the other hand, has cleverly appropriated the language of 'struggle' as well as the Freedom Charter.

Its disregard for the rules and protocols of Parliament has left the Speaker in a quandary. Regrettably, the Speaker is so deeply conflicted as ANC party chair that the manner in which she has presided over the House has left one in little doubt that her sole aim has been to protect the president.

Yet, for Parliament to function optimally, both the EFF and the ANC will need to simply grow up. The problem the president has is that it is not a legal nicety to come to Parliament and answer questions, but rather a Constitutional duty. As things stand, he is in breach of that duty. Having said that, the EFF's nihilistic approach, while titillating for those who enjoy a spectacle, could have very real and undemocratic consequences when used in other spheres.

But Nkandla and the ANC's inability to deal with opposition aside, the president comes to Parliament against an increasingly gloomy economic backdrop despite the media charm offensive Zuma was on this week. 'The good story to tell' will be more difficult to spin as the economy is set for another year of slow growth and youth unemployment is at a stubborn 52%, according to the latest International Labour Organisation figures. It really still is all about the economy, yet it will be hard for Zuma to find the positives associated with low growth. The Jobs Fund, which had as its target the creation of 150,000 jobs in three years, had created only 35,000 jobs by the end of 2014.

It is also difficult to see quite how the National Development Plan goal of 6% unemployment by 2030 will be reached. Understandable anxieties about energy supply only serve to contribute to the gloomy outlook.

In addition, the president will have to explain what progress there has been as regards the so-called 'youth wage subsidy' which seeks to provide incentives to companies employing young people for a period of two years through the Employment Tax Incentive Act passed in January 2014. Throughout the course of the year, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has been saying that an across-the-board minimum wage was a certainty.

Again, we wait to hear more and also how the social partners' forum, also convened by Ramaphosa under the auspices of Nedlac, is progressing. The forum was set up to deal with the deepening instability in the mining sector and the rehabilitation of communities. Surely too, the president will have to provide details of what progress is being made to ensure proper corporate governance and speedy delivery at state-owned enterprises, held captive by vested interests? Skillfully, Zuma has charged Ramaphosa with turning around Eskom, the SA Post Office and SAA. A tall order, or setting his deputy up for failure - who can tell?

Increasingly, levels of corruption at local government level also need to be dealt with decisively. Local government has been in a perpetual state of 'turn-around' where only 9% of municipalities have received unqualified audits.

There is an increasing feeling that all is not well and that the country is fast coming undone as we face a weakened economy, with no true consensus between the social partners on how to fix things and as we see ever-increasing social instability such as in Malamumele and Soweto recently. Both are symptoms of a deep malaise within government and of a political leadership increasingly out of touch with what is happening within communities. The transparent and responsive governance the Constitution envisages also seems under threat as we see our institutions being manipulated and used to fight factional battles - perhaps even at the president's behest. It is Parliament's job to exercise oversight over the executive, yet, if last week's police committee hearing into the suspension of Hawks head, Anwa Dramat, is anything to go by, the ANC in Parliament is fully prepared to ride rough-shod over the rule of law for short-term political favour.

Of course, despite all these governance and economic challenges, Zuma can point to expanded basic social services, the dramatic success relating to the fight against HIV and Aids, the number of schools built and that fewer people now depend on the 'bucket system' for sanitation as well as water provision in certain rural villages.

Zuma, like his party, has little choice but to hope that this constitutes enough of a 'good story' for enough of the country's population to enable the ANC to continue feeling confident that they can govern at least for the foreseeable future - though that notion will be severely challenged in next year's municipal elections.

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

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