DISRUPTION AND VAGUENESS

Disruption and vagueness marked yesterday’s Presidential State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Cape Town. The disruption, unsurprisingly, was caused mainly by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with markedly less support from the Democratic Alliance (DA) than last year. For vagueness we had the Address itself, delivered by a President Jacob Zuma who seemed less than his ebullient self, even subdued. Though a few points were made that deserve analysis, they were mostly quite vague and couched in language more aspirational than action-oriented.

As everyone expected the EFF disrupted the process by calling for points of order. In what seemed to this viewer at least a carefully choreographed ritual, successive EFF MPs interrupted the proceedings, and were called upon to sit down by both Speakers (of the NA and NCOP), who argued that such interventions violated the parliamentary procedure for a joint session of Parliament. They finally were ejected after Julius Malema’s diatribe against Zuma’s ability to be a president, chanting ‘Zuptas Must Fall’.

Did this disruption, however well-planned it might have been, achieve anything? Compared to last year, my sense is: very little. The EFF’s disruption and delay of the inevitable came across as petulant, even childish. Apart from Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota, who walked out before the EFF’s departure, most other opposition parties’ seemed more ready to listen to Zuma’s speech. The tenor of DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s intervention (echoed by Piet Mulder of Freedom Front Plus) might be summed up as ‘Let’s just get on with it.’ Inkatha’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s suggestion – to put the decision to proceed to the vote – was similarly conciliatory in intent: a snap vote with an overwhelming ANC majority in the House would have formally at least ended the ‘debate’, whatever the proprieties of parliamentary procedure.

It’s worth wondering what the EFF might have done. They should at least have let Zuma get through the commemorations and welcomes to special guests – I found their disruption here both irritating and insulting to the guests and to the memory of events far greater than the present party-political wrangling. In fact, had the EFF waited until Zuma was into his speech and then responded with their ‘Zuptas Must Fall’ chant and departure, their actions might have had greater impact. I suspect, rather, that their final expulsion came as a relief to those watching the spectacle on television, within Parliament and to all other parties, including most of the opposition.

No doubt everyone wanted to see whether, or how, Zuma would respond to the recent Constitutional Court hearings as much as get a sense of how he and the ANC saw the state of the nation. If so, they were disappointed in the first instance, and arguably on the second.

Apart from a few vague promises, SONA 2016 came across as bland, vague and uninspiring. Zuma’s commitment to a more frugal Parliament and administration was the most direct and decisive part of the speech and is to be welcomed. Whether this will be implemented and achieved remains to be seen. While we should give the President the benefit of the doubt today and in days to come, the next few months will be crucial to see if there will indeed be follow-through.

The economy featured strongly in the speech, though here I sensed a certain equivocation about the extent of the crisis we face, not helped by attempts to excuse government’s failure to address problems with the global economic downturn and the drought. While both are significant factors Zuma didn’t address adequately the fundamental problem we face: low local and international investor confidence, failing infrastructure and unemployable citizens crippled by a dire education system. Government policies, poor appointments and indecision is most to blame for all three of these problems.

Granted, Zuma acknowledged the need for greater cooperation between government, business and labour, and recognised that many state owned enterprises were failing. He conceded that some of the latter might need to be privatised. Similarly, he admitted that prolonged and often violent strike actions damaged the economy, and that this needed attention. Unfortunately he couched these points in vague and indecisive terms. Very little was forthcoming in terms of direct action and timelines to roll out new policies.

As I listened to the speech I noted time and again the way vague language was used: “is being finalised”, “in the first stages of”, “solution is being sought”, “we are trying to solve this challenge” and similar invocations of the indefinite present and passive voice suggested to me a generalised indecisiveness, lack of clarity of vision and perhaps even a leader who has lost the plot. Even where solutions were directly expressed – the proposed commission of enquiry into higher education in response to the ‘fees must fall’ protests – they came across as stalling tactics rather than solutions.

Almost everyone I asked afterwards who saw SONA 2016 saw it as uninspiring. Some called it a “non-event”, a combination of tedious political theatrics and “waffle”. Shortly after SONA ended the Rand dropped against the US Dollar and the Euro. While it is hard, and unfair, to say that SONA caused this drop, it will be interesting to see how the economy fares in the next few weeks. What is clear to me from SONA 2016 is that from the point of view of innovative ideas to solve our nation’s problems, the government of South Africa is almost bankrupt.