SONA: Go for the Big Five, President Zuma, you have nothing to lose

By Judith February.

The President should focus on the multi-dimensional nature of South Africa’s crisis: from the economy, to racial polarisation, securitisation of the state, dysfunction and maladministration at local government, the problems are easily identifiable. The SONA should be easy to write. Go for the Big Five, and you’re safe, Mr President.

Our politics is like our sport. Pretty much up and down. Or maybe it is our sport that is like our politics? At the Wanderers the Proteas fell like skittles as England visited humiliation upon us. On Tuesday at Centurion, the elusive Protea Fire was on display when South Africa beat England by a whopping 280 runs. We are a country like that; up and down, love-hate, very good and often very bad.

When world leaders gathered at Davos last week, it was always going to be tough to make South Africa’s case. When one sees actor Leonardo DiCaprio sashaying out of a limousine to discuss inequality, one realizes that much of Davos might well be about celebrity. Yet, we needed to make our mark in a hostile environment. We did not and our President President Zuma was a “no show” for a CNBC Africa panel discussion. It’s always a little embarrassing when President Zuma enters the economic fray, so the ‘no show’ possibly saved the Rand some devaluation.

President Zuma might prefer home turf and in just over two weeks he will deliver his state of the nation address (SONA). The year 2016 has been off to a fractious, argumentative start. Zuma probably does not have the ability to speak to what divides and troubles us. We have, after all, waited for years for him to indicate that he truly is a ‘man of the people’. But, we live in hope in these parts.

A rough draft State of the Nation speech might embrace a “Big Five” cluster of issues Zuma needs to address if we are to find each other in 2016.

#ONE: It’s always been about the economy, stupid! But more than that, it is about inequality and its effects. During 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%-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, close to exclusively, white.

Piketty’s solution? It is to recognize 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. And so while our leaders seemed a little flawed 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 “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. At the UCT panel discussion, “taking back land” seemed to also be a key theme as was dealing with “whiteness”. And so, daily in our institutions, we deal with the inability to meet each other halfway. Finding each other becomes a non-starter when the argument runs that black and white cannot debate because of a sense of violence that whiteness visits upon blackness. It creates unhealthy pockets of silence that are deeply undemocratic too.

What is clear is that our campuses are too small for these debates and need a fully engaged and committed society. For that, however, we need leadership across all spectrums of society to engage and not opt out. Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa will 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.

#TWO: If 1994 was about a “rainbow nation”, the racial polarisation we have seen demonstrated in parts of #feesmustfall and by the Penny Sparrows 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 the UCT law debate was a questioning of our 1990s transition. While a great deal of the analysis by students was inaccurate, the logic stream 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. As Judge Dennis Davis pointed out, 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 of 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 speech though sadly, he himself has an ambivalent relationship with the Constitution.

#THREE: 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 violated rights and only created a more incendiary environment. 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 (POSIB) 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 pro-active approach to his own financial disclosure?

#FOUR: 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, 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. The ANC and government are yet to act.

This week, the residents of Mtubatuba registered their complaints regarding sewerage 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 which cares for the poor and most vulnerable.

#FIVE: The drought should surely be on our president’s mind? And while we are watching out superficially stitched societal compromise come undone in so many ways, South Africa is facing one of its worst droughts in decades. The drought is having a devastating effect on farms and small towns across our country. In some areas children are drinking sewerage water out of sheer desperation, while Free State farmers pray for rain. In part the drought is a result of not taking proper care of infrastructure, not building sufficient dams and then a rather slow response to the challenges farmers are facing as well as over-grazing and other poor farming practices.

What this drought is doing to small towns and famers, in particular black, small-scale farmers is nothing short of catastrophic. Those that were profitable before are now in dire straits. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has said that the drought is an “absolute priority” for government but is this too little too late and do we have the money to actually support embattled farmers? Many municipalities have simply been sleeping through the crisis hoping it will resolve itself. One would have imagined also that President Zuma prioritising this issue in his last Parliamentary Question Time yet his responses were predictably routine. The water crisis makes the electricity crisis seem bearable and even less urgent.

That’s The Big Five for the year, Mr President. In a hash tag world one may end by saying #useitorloseit.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick dated 2 February 2016.


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