[OPINION] The big 5 issues Zuma must tackle in Sona

As President Jacob Zuma comes to Parliament next week to officially start the political year, he comes as a part-lame duck given that this will be his last State of the Nation Address (Sona) as president of the ANC.

But there is life in Zuma yet as his recent remarks regarding the ANC succession battles reflect. His push for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his preferred candidate has not gone unnoticed, to say the least.

Sona this year also comes amidst many rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s own comments regarding the disunity so evident within the ANC.

In a world and country turned upside down, what should the president be saying?

Here’s a guide to the ‘Big Five’ issues the president might wish to tackle - or not.

#1: It’s always been about the economy, stupid!

But more than that, it is about inequality and its effects. According to economist Thomas Piketty, income inequality in South Africa is rising. Over 12 million people live in extreme poverty and one in four South Africans go to bed hungry, according to ActionAid. Piketty’s key statistic is that 60%-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.

Piketty’s solution? To recognise the failure of BBBEE, 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. Last year our universities were torn apart by #feesmustfall protests while Zuma remained largely silent apart from establishing the Fees Commission to solve the problem or kick it to touch for a while.

Yet, the challenge is far broader than simply university fees. It is about the deep inequality that is so entrenched in much of South African society. Recent studies show that the unemployment rate amongst those youngsters with a matric certificate is as high as 54%. It rises to about 75% without that matric certificate. Among graduates, unemployment levels are around 8%. It is thus easy to see why so many are so desperate for a tertiary education. It remains a ticket out of poverty.

In this real-life context what does the ANC actually mean by ‘radical economic transformation’ and how can all sectors of society be part of such an important conversation about redistribution? Thus far we have heard the shouts of bringing down ‘white monopoly capital’, yet that seems less about the true transformation of the economy and more about the narrow economic interests of Zuma and his associates.

Doubtless we will hear about the ‘radical’ reform of the banking and mining sectors and a government’s increased role in the developmental state. The expropriation of land has become something of a centrepiece for Zuma and the ANC of late. The new expropriation legislation might provide some ‘radical’ response to the EFF’s continued call for greater land redistribution.

Clearly the ANC wants to up the ante on the economy as it desperately seeks a new angle to recycled ideas, but the challenge is always implementation and dealing with its own internal contradictions to ensure policy clarity.

#2: State capture and corruption.

Might we get more than just a few comforting words about the ‘fight against corruption’ just as the ANC’s January 8 statement did? Will the president tell us how things really will change? Not much when Zuma himself sits at the heart of efforts to capture the heart of the state.

Key to economic growth and development is the effective running of state-owned enterprises. Ours are in dire straits and last year Zuma appointed a presidential state-owned enterprises (SOEs) coordinating council to ‘stabilise and reform’ SOEs. What steps have been taken to strengthen corporate governance within SOEs?

In a perfectly aligned universe, he would speak to what concerns us all and thus announce that he will not delay the commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture. He would say too he is equally concerned that the Finance Minister is under attack at every turn. The chances of that happening are unfortunately miniscule since Zuma is so intricately involved in the palace politics of the day.

#3: The securitisation of the state.
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. In addition, 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 Right2Know campaign has, for instance, actively campaigned against attempts to stifle protests. 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. Perhaps the president will also fill us in on the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB) that lies in his in-tray gathering dust. Concerns have also been raised about the overly broad Cybercrimes Bill provisions.

#4: Race and reconciliation.

If 1994 was about a ‘rainbow nation’, the racial polarisation we have seen demonstrated in parts of #feesmustfall and by the social media race-baiting that often happens (think Penny Sparrow and an array of other racial slanderers) indicate just how far we have moved from Madiba’s dream of a non-racial society. There is a great deal of simplistic analysis in the air which keeps rearing its head in public debate, whether on #feesmustfall or when discussing ‘white monopoly capital’. It goes 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, yet given the high levels of inequality it can be compelling.

This line of argument often brings us to a point where the legitimacy of the Constitution itself and the key principles it contains is questioned. 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 among 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 speech though sadly, he himself has an ambivalent relationship with the Constitution.

A Sona ought to be about the ‘big, hairy issues’ that face a country and provide a vision of where we are going. Zuma’s Sonas have been pedestrian and repetitive, with little or no vision to carry us along. It does not seem as if that approach will change given his speeches over the past year, as well as his seeming disinterest in matters of state and his consistent lack of leadership.

#5: ‘I resign’.
This surely is the most principled way out for a president who seems so disinterested in matters of state and for whom power alone holds the allure?

But, let’s not hold our breath on that one.

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