South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma will give his 2016 State of the Nation Address on February 11 to outline key government business for the year ahead. The event will be keenly watched to establish what the president and the governing African National Congress consider to be the most important challenges facing the country, and how they plan to tackle them. Politics and society editor Thabo Leshilo asks three political scientists what to expect.
What are the most important issues the president should be addressing?
The four most important issues are the economy and economic growth, social cohesion, land reform and preparing the terrain for the 2016 local government elections.
Economic growth is necessary to prevent international rating agencies downgrading South Africa’s sovereign rating to junk status, to create jobs and to attain all the government’s big strategic goals.
Social cohesion is directly related to the debate about racism. It also seems to be an important part of the African National Congress’ (ANC) election campaign. It is critical for the ANC to perform well in the upcoming municipal election. More radical social and economic transformation, with emphasis on land reform, will be most critical.
There is no doubt that the general loss of faith in the economy is the most important issue President Jacob Zuma must address. While global economic conditions are indeed unfavourable, they are no excuse for the sickly state of the South African economy.
A number of developments point to the government’s general mismanagement of the economy, as well as some own goals. These include: the firing of his finance minister, now known as #Nenegate, the plummeting rand, rising food prices due to government’s failure to come to the aid of drought-stricken farmers, policy flux and soaring government debt.
All have put the country firmly on the path to recession and there is a strong possibility that South Africa’s sovereign rating will be downgraded to junk status. He needs to acknowledge these problems and announce concrete steps to begin to fix the ailing economy.
Related to this is the fact that government’s wage bill simply has to be trimmed. Civil servants' salaries and benefits consume 35.5 percent of government’s total budget. This contributes to public debt ballooning by 70 percent between 2009 and 2014 – from 26 percent of GDP to 44 percent by 2014.
The return on this investment has been almost non-existent as the civil service remains unproductive and service delivery protests remain a fact of daily life.
And instead of reining in this expenditure, the public service was awarded a 10.1 percent salary increase for 2015/2016, while an additional 300 000 civil servants were employed between 2008 and 2015, bringing the total to 1.6 million.
President Zuma must use the speech to signal his willingness to cut this inefficient spending.
It is also time he started to show leadership on the #FeesMustFall matter. The speech provides him with a good opportunity to demonstrate to the country that he has listened to students’ concerns about unaffordable education, and that his administration is committed to finding sustainable solutions. Continuing the current dismissive approach to the issue would add further fuel to the protest fire.
The state of the country’s economy has to be the top priority. While economic development is not a panacea for all the problems a country faces, South Africa
cannot prosper under the current weak economic conditions.
The reasons for the current crisis, as well as possible solutions, will have to be addressed. This would have two positive effects. First, it would revive hope that the government has plans in place to remedy the situation. Secondly, it would give potential investors confidence. This would dispel the wrong perception that the president does not care about the country’s economy and that he makes reckless decisions.
The president also needs to address the situation at higher education institutions. The call for free education by students and their dissatisfaction with the way in which government has responded to their demands should feature significantly. This is important because, to meet the demand, either the country’s budget needs to be adjusted or taxes must be increased. Either way South Africans would have to dig deeper into their pockets.
And the president needs to address violence both within and between political parties. This is of serious concern. The issue is particularly important because of the forthcoming local elections. Unless political violence is curtailed now it will be difficult to contain - let alone end - around election time.
Does the President have what it takes to deliver on these challenges?
President Zuma is playing the survival game and is not going to take bold decisions. Survival is about the succession battle within the ANC. He will make a lot of tactical moves but won’t take big strategic decisions to take the country forward during a time of crisis.
Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that Zuma will take bold action. He has generally proven to be a weak and compromised leader, preferring to avoid tough decisions as much as possible. Concrete actions on the economy and a commitment to cutting the wasteful civil service budget would be politically unpopular with the ANC and its alliance partners, while the pressures of the upcoming local government elections make it extremely unlikely that the president will take these necessary steps. Instead, South Africans can expect more of the same from Zuma: a poorly-delivered and uninspiring speech filled with selective anecdotes touting government’s supposed successes while denying the scale of the socio-economic crisis facing the country.
The President will in all likelihood be very cautious. And with the local elections around the corner, the President would not want to give opposition political parties ammunition to ambush the ruling party.
While it is true that Zuma has over the years proved he has the ability to weather the storms, and laugh things off, this time around there is a lot at stake. Previous developments and an anticipation of things to come in the local election and the ANC elective conference in 2017 will influence how he articulates certain government positions.
Taking a bold decision calls for courage. It is also contingent on a confluence of factors. For example, he has to be certain that he has enough support so that even if a decision is challenged there would be people to support it. At the moment he has no such guarantee.
Thabo Leshilo is politics and society editor at the Conversation Africa. This article first appeared on the Conversation Africa website.