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Daniel Silke: No ordinary SONA for ‘lame-duck’ Zuma

Feb 10 2016 15:03
Daniel Silke

Cape Town - This will be no ordinary State of the Nation Address. President Jacob Zuma’s 8th SONA occurs under a rapidly changing economic and political landscape that is set to impact upon every issue raised in the speech.

It’s no ordinary SONA when the South African economy has deteriorated so dramatically over the last year. The expected platitudes from a positive spin on the previous years’ government performance just don’t ring true anymore.

The President is presiding over a country deeply concerned about its economic plight. Any attempt to obfuscate the critical decline of growth, inability to tackle unemployment and the staring down of junk bond status will be met with disdain and depression.

And, once again, it’s not just South Africans who will be looking for some light at the end of the tunnel. It’s those pesky rating agencies that hold in their hand the ability to make life very difficult for us – both institutionally through increasing the cost of capital/borrowings and personally through a possible further attack on the rand and higher inflation/interest rates.

The warnings about economic decline were starkly laid out by South African Reserve Bank Governor, Lesetja Kganyago on 28 January. Those warnings demand continuity within the President’s speech – at least in reference to indicate that important shifts need to take place.

It’s no ordinary SONA when the country has been embroiled in an unedifying and deeply disturbing regression into racist utterances and also the use of race for political ends.

The past few months have threatened to unhinge the broad social pact that was the foundation of the post 1994 era. Racial divisions and heightened political rhetoric today threaten the country and the President will need to show true bipartisan leadership on this issue and desist from scoring political points ahead of the local government election campaign.

It’s no ordinary SONA when the messenger (the President himself) has been weakened on a number of political fronts. The Nhalhla Nene debacle has severely dented the President’s credibility and has eroded confidence in broader governance within the country.

A murky credibility gap now confronts the President in word and deed. His job of convincing a domestic and foreign audience about the prospects for the country took a severe hit in December. His message at the 2016 SONA has to confront that challenge of attempting to claw back a semblance of control and authority.

Zuma already then, begins this SONA at a distinct disadvantage – desperately trying to sound convincing as a leader in full command of the domestic and global headwinds buffeting the nation.

It’s no ordinary SONA when events in the Constitutional Court only this very week are likely to provide the President with his biggest political headache to date. The Nkandla saga – so robustly fought in court – has further eroded the President’s support. This time though, it is likely to have caused great internal consternation within not only the Cabinet but also the ANC’s National Executive Committee.

The legal arguments and concessions from the Zuma camp have left his own Minister of Police exposed. And beyond that, questions about the role of parliament in the oversight of this matter embarrasses a broad swathe of ANC representatives.

While the caucus will no doubt cheer at top voice when the President enters the chamber, it has to be Zuma’s weakest moment among his own peers. That in itself makes this no ordinary SONA.

The combined effect of a disastrous economic year since the last SONA and Zuma’s sustained political weakening creates both opportunity and danger for the President.

With little to lose, he could ‘go for broke’ by initiating a new meaningful round of private sector, labour and state negotiations – in the format of the CODESA negotiations of the early 1990s. If the President can convincingly act as the master mediator (which is perhaps his greatest strength), then he can salvage something from this exercise.

South Africa has required an urgent and real rapprochement between these three key pillars of our political economy for some years – with no apparent political will to begin the process of healing. Pushed into the proverbial corner – and showing signs that he is already courting business, this might be a catalyst for the President to kick-start a critical dialogue long overdue.

By acting as the initiator and convening the dialogue, Zuma can – if he survives politically – even think about a legacy issue that is not scandal-related. Ironically, it is the business community – so desperate for a thaw in relations with the ANC – who could be his biggest praise-singers on this.

On the other hand, Zuma’s flagging political fortunes leave him more a lame-duck than an effective head-of-state. With a cabinet now effectively embarrassed by Nkandla, Zuma might  find political pull-back from them on more risky political initiatives.

If he is to succeed at all, he would need to extricate himself from the cronyism and deep patronage networks that has itself stifled service delivery from the parastatals to local government. It may just be too late in the day to expect this.

So it’s no ordinary SONA. A weak President presiding over a racially polarised nation now has enemies within and sceptics afar judging his every utterance. The question is whether the ‘lame-duck’ can get up and walk with his head held high. Only he has it in him to decide.

* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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