President failed to be a statesman, writes Ryland Fisher
NOT too long ago, President Jacob Zuma opened most of his speeches with a quote from Nelson Mandela or, at the very least, he would use a Madiba quote in his speech. This year, he has been quoting Oliver Tambo liberally, which is understandable, given that Tambo would have turned 100 in October this year.
But what Zuma fails to understand, and this was clear at the State of the Nation Address on Thursday night, is that quoting great leaders does not make you a great leader.
Zuma fell very short of his publicly-acknowledged heroes, Mandela and Tambo, and not only in the delivery of the speech which he began at 20h21 after three attempts and several disruptions. He was supposed to have started at 19h00 but met fierce resistance in the House, mainly from the Economic Freedom Fighters.
After some of the worst scenes seen in Parliament, Zuma began by exclaiming “Finally!” before quickly settling into his trademark giggles and even an irritating “cheers” whenever he took a sip of water. One supposes that he felt comfortable because he was speaking mainly to ANC MPs and what was left of the public gallery where a chemical substance had earlier been used on some guests.
The EFF was forcibly removed from Parliament, as was Cope’s Willie Madisha, even though less violently so, while the DA MPs walked out.
What was of more concern than the exit of the MPs was the behaviour of some ANC MPs who shouted “f… you” when DA MP John Steenhuisen tried to speak and then there were also shouts of “racist” and “sell-outs” when the DA walked out.
Earlier, some of the EFF MPs had made disparaging remarks about Zuma and Speaker Baleka Mbete. The EFF’s Mbuyiseni Mdlozi called Zuma a “constitutional delinquent” while Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota called Zuma a “scoundrel”.
One expects a lot more from the people who are supposed to be our public representatives.
The drama in Parliament unfolded for three reasons: objections against Zuma’s legitimacy because of his violations of the Constitution, the Speaker’s refusal to allow a minute of silence in remembrance of the 94 mental health patients who died in Gauteng recently, and the presence of soldiers in the police precinct.
While Zuma was delivering his speech inside the National Assembly in his normal deadpan way, the protests continued outside with tense standoffs between the ejected MPs and police. Parliament had never seen such a police presence and intimidation of MPs and the media.
If Zuma really wanted to be like Mandela and Tambo, he would have seized an opportunity to be statesman-like and would not just have expressed relief when he was finally allowed to begin his speech.
He would not have gone straight into his speech and would have made some off-the-cuff comments about what he had just seen and expressed his disquiet about it, not because of the disrespect shown to him, but the potential damage that was being done to Parliament and South Africa by the behaviour of the MPs and the police.
He would have appealed to his colleagues in the ANC to seek a political solution to a problem that refuses to go away. He might have said that he would reflect on his own role in creating this situation and would try to think of ways in which he could assist in resolving the tensions in Parliament (but that’s just wishful thinking on my part).
He might also have said that the Speaker erred by not allowing a minute of silence in remembrance of the mental health patients who died, or he might have called on everyone to stand in silent prayer or meditation when he did mention their deaths in his speech.
Mandela and especially Tambo would have also read their speeches before delivery to make sure that they understood its content and would not be floored by the pronunciation of difficult words or numbers. Zuma gave the impression that he was seeing the speech for the first time. There were too many times when he looked confused about what he was reading or when he stumbled over his words.
By the time he delivered his speech, it was difficult to concentrate on what he had to say, not only because of the delivery but because what had just happened.
In many ways, the contents of the speech were predictable. It was almost like he was reading a report card of the government’s achievements but there was not much in terms of vision.
Zuma premised his speech on the ANC’s latest catch phrase “radical socio-economic transformation” and promised to correct the situation where black people are still mainly detached from the mainstream economy.
He mentioned the National Development Plan and the nine-point plan of government once and spoke more extensively about the need to grow the economy to create more jobs, the successes of the regular interaction between government and business, his joy at the agreement on a national minimum wage, Eskom’s success in the power generation sector, government’s commitment to counter water losses, and efforts to eradicate mud schools and replace them with proper structures.
As it is, Zuma’s comments on the death of the patients was comprehensive and impressive, with a commitment that the government would implement the recommendations of the health ombudsman urgently. There was even a commitment of government support for the families of the victims.
One by one, he ploughed through the work and achievements of various government departments, dealing with the Square Kilometre Array project, university students’ demands for free education, a commitment to lower the cost of data (something that has been demanded by many), improvements in road infrastructure, an increase in tourism, and many others.
China featured very prominently in Zuma’s speech, with news of a co-operation agreement with the People’s Republic of China to build the Moloto Rail Development Corridor. But Zuma also made a commitment to the “One China Policy” and said that the government considered Taiwan as an “integral part of the PRC”.
“We value our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. China is one of South Africa's most important and key strategic partners. We recognise the PRC ‘as the sole Government and Authority representing the whole of China’,” he said.
It was when Zuma spoke about government’s priorities that the assembled MPs and guests appeared to listen more attentively.
“Political freedom alone is incomplete without economic emancipation,” he said, quoting Tambo as saying in 1981 that “it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the country to the people as a whole”.
Zuma defined “radical socio-economic transformation as “fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female, as defined by the governing party which makes policy for the democratic government”.
He listed instances of how the economic situation has not changed in South Africa in the past 22 years, including the gap in the household income of whites and blacks, the fact that blacks only own less than 10 percent of the top 100 companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and the slow pace of transformation in the work place.
“Today we are starting a new chapter of radical socio-economic transformation. We are saying that we should move beyond words, to practical programmes. The state will play a role in the economy to drive that transformation. In this regard, government will utilise to the maximum, the strategic levers that are available to the state. This includes legislation, regulations, licensing, budget and procurement as well as Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Charters to influence the behaviour of the private sector and drive transformation.”
He outlined some steps that the government would take to achieve this economic transformation, including making it compulsory for big contractors to sub-contract 30 percent to black business.
If Zuma was completely honest with the nation, he would have acknowledged the role that the ANC has played in maintaining the economic status quo in South Africa. The ANC has been in government for almost 23 years and are fast running out of excuses about who to blame when things are going wrong or not happening fast enough in South Africa.
In May 1987, at the Business International Conference in London, Tambo spoke about the challenges that would face the ANC when it became the government.
“As the vanguard movement of our people, the preoccupation of the African National Congress is, and should be, the relentless prosecution of the all-round struggle to achieve freedom and democracy in our country. At the same time, we have begun to face the responsibilities that flow from having to lead our people in the restructuring of our society under the conditions of freedom. At the heart of this process is the need to ensure that the hopes and aspirations of our people find realisation through programmes based on concrete socio-economic facts”
Maybe Zuma should revisit that speech and ask himself why and how the ANC has failed to deliver on a mandate that its longest-serving president realised as long as 30 years ago. Let’s hope that the ANC does not only quote Tambo this year, but also learn from his example.
(First published in Independent Media's Saturday titles on 11 February 2017)