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OPINION: The president’s Sona challenge

One wonders what President Zuma, fresh from his no-show at Davos, will be thinking of ahead of his State of the Nation (Sona) address on 11 February?

Will we be subjected to yet another sonorous speech, disconnected from the political and social reality of the day?

If one were in the position to give the president five areas to focus on, what would they be? What might speak to South Africans in a way which creates possibilities for debate and action?

Zuma would have to start with the economy. That is where our stubborn, structural impediments to job creation and growth lie, after all. But more than that, it is about inequality and its effects. On Thomas Piketty's recent visit to South Africa, we were reminded (as if we needed reminding) that income inequality in our country is rising. Over 12 million people live in extreme poverty and one in four South Africans goes to bed hungry, according to ActionAid. Piketty's key statistic is that 60% to 65% of South Africa's wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the population. Of course, this group historically has been predominantly, almost exclusively, white.

What is Piketty's solution? It is to recognise the failure of broad-based black economic empowerment, implement a national minimum wage and accelerate land reform. Of course, this deals only peripherally with the unemployed and unemployable. As former minister Trevor Manuel said, however, everyone agrees Piketty is right, but where is the social solidarity to fix the problem? Who will have the courage and who will lead? The ANC looks tired and too self-interested to lead the charge and make attempts at building the social consensus we need to even start discussing inequality sensibly.

And so while our leaders seemed a little floored by #FeesMustFall, the movement has become the face of an angry, unequal society.

FeesMustFall and the inequality debate have a racial aspect to it. Given our history, this is hardly a surprise. Simply put, one is more likely to be black and poor than white and poor in South Africa. A very real anger bubbles just beneath the surface of all our interactions. It arises at every conversation we try to have regarding inequality, race, redress and that old chestnut of 'transformation'. This past weekend, the University of Cape Town's law faculty held a series of discussions regarding transformation and the law. The conversation was often deeply polarising and confusing. At the heart of the debate is a sense that white South Africans cannot feel 'black pain' given the history that has gone before. There is also a sense that the time has come for radical redress.


Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa is set to lead a national dialogue on race. Quite how that will be inclusive is hard to tell. The president needs to speak clearly on issues of race and inequality in his address, but he cannot do so without a bold vision of economic equality.

If 1994 was about a 'rainbow nation', the racial polarisation we have seen demonstrated in parts of #FeesMustFall and by Penny Sparrow and her ilk indicate just how far we have moved from Madiba's dream of a non-racial society. One of the key issues that arose out of #FeesMustFall was a questioning of our 1990s transition.

While a great deal of the analysis by students was inaccurate, the logic ran something like this: white people had everything, black people entered a compromise so whites could keep just about everything and hand black people scraps off the table. It's a limited analysis that does not take into account the global and political context, yet given the high levels of inequality, it can be compelling. What it allows though is space for the questioning of the Constitution itself and the key principles it contains. It is an argument that ignores the agency of those currently in power to transform society. It also ignores the politics of the day, power struggles, and corrupt and ineffective governance.

Blaming the Constitution for our societal ills has cachet now. Yet it is a dangerous argument that may see the poor further disadvantaged. The truth though is that we have to confront these arguments and the rhetoric honestly. It is no use burying our heads in the sand when our human rights culture looks ever vulnerable. How do we promote Constitutional education in our schools and amongst ordinary citizens? Constitutions are for all people, not only lawyers and rarified legal settings. The president has an opportunity to lead on this too in his Sona, though sadly, he himself has an ambivalent relationship with the Constitution.

The securitisation of the State might be tackled by the president too. If we are to agree that we wish to move towards a state in which constitutional rights are enshrined, then some proposed laws are of concern. Over the past year we have seen instances of police brutality in the #FeesMustFall protests which only created a more incendiary environment and violated rights. We can also not forget the storming of Parliament in February last year and the signal jamming incident for which no-one has been properly held to account. Perhaps the president will fill us in on the Protection of State Information Bill that lies in his in-tray gathering dust.

Last year saw several battles with the state regarding attempts to police the internet, the flawed National Key Points Act and access to lists of actual key points, as well as the ongoing battle around the appointment of the inspector-general of intelligence. State secrecy has often fuelled these battles and will no doubt continue to do so as government becomes more defensive in the face of increasing protests and opposition on the streets. The Right to Know campaign has, for instance, actively campaigned against attempts to stifle protests. 2016 might see challenges to the Regulation of Gatherings Act. The Constitution commits us to a society where there is a free flow of communication and open, transparent and responsive governance. The Zuma administration, in particular, has focused rather more on a closed mode of governance. This has had a few knock-on effects such as a reduction in the number of people brave enough to be whistle-blowers as the Open Democracy Advice Centre research of 2015 indicates so clearly.

Will our president lead on a commitment to a more open state that might well also include a more proactive approach to his own financial disclosure?

Local government is frankly, largely dysfunctional. Each year the Auditor-General laments the qualified audits and corruption at municipal level and each year we shrug our shoulders and hope for the best. We have a weak, compliant Minister Des Van Rooyen, fresh from finance, yet who speaks of local government as if he is quoting from a textbook. What is needed is to break the cycle of patronage which local government has become. The ANC-led government knows the problem. After all, Yunus Carrim's excellent 2009 report on the state of local government sets out the challenges of patronage, corruption and a lack of skill. Yet, the ANC and government are yet to act.

This week, the residents of Mathubathuba registered their complaints regarding sewage winding its way through their streets. The poor are affected the most as a result of government's inability to maintain infrastructure and a sheer indifference. For Zuma it should not simply be a case of protecting his party's majority, but about showing us the face of a government who cares for the poor and most vulnerable.

Whether Zuma and the ANC-led government will be able to step up to the plate during Sona and inspire us to move forward remains to be seen.

_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judith_february