SONA AND BEYOND
The debacle at last year’s State on the Nation Address (SONA) set the scene for immense public interest in this year’s address. The fiasco in December when President Zuma appointed three Ministers of Finance in four days heightened public awareness of this year’s event.
In order to avoid a Constitutional Court hearing Zuma made a bid to settle the Nkandla case prior to SONA with an offer that President Zuma would “implement what the Public Protector recommended as remedial action contained in the report” for the upgrades made at his private residence at Nkandla.
The court case however went ahead on Tuesday 9 February, two days before the SONA, because both the EFF and the DA rejected the President’s offer as being too little too late.
South Africans were therefore treated to the most degrading spectacle of the Senior Counsel for the President, Adv. Jeremy Gauntlet, conceding that the Public Protector’s findings into security upgrades at Nkandla were in fact binding. Advocate Gauntlett seemed to be more concerned to avoid that declaratory order would be issued by the court that could be used to push for Zuma’s impeachment.
A case of the President having to beg to keep his job?
Zuma is not known for his loyalty when personally at risk. It therefore came as no surprise that when asked about the Minister of Police’s report and whether the court should rely on it Gauntlett said “we take the point… that the Police Minister has in a sense shot his bolt in making findings,” He later added. “they place no reliance on the Police Minister’s report”.
Advocate William Mokhari, the advocate for Police Minister Nathi Nhleko responded to a question from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng: “Let me understand, your instructions from minister of police is simply to explain how you got involved and not make any submissions on validity of any of the mandates you were given?”
Advocate Mokhari said “that is correct”. The Minister pleading that “I was only doing my job”.
Even the speaker of Parliament was not spared after the President’s admission, Advocate Nkosi-Thomas representing The Speaker eventually conceded: “Parliament took a wrong position.”
Depending on the Court’s final and binding judgement it will be interesting to see how the chips fall.
During this excitement President Zuma was meeting in Cape Town with major South African investors and CEOs of big companies to discuss ways in which government and the business sector can work together to bring about the growth of the economy and to create jobs.
It can be assumed that he was sounding out their views on his proposed State of the Nation Address for Thursday 11 February 2015 and what issues needed to be addressed to try and redeem himself after the Finance Minister fiasco.
It was announced a few days prior to SONA that a serious decision had been taken to cut the cost of SONA this year. The main saving would be that there will be no dinner following the event, which will bring down expenditure to R3.6 million.
Pity that we did not follow the example of Tanzania’s President Magufuli who decided that when parliament was going to open and there was a state dinner planned that was going to cost about 300million Shillings (approx R2 million) he cut the budget to 25million Shillings (approx R175 000) and ordered that the rest be taken to buy hospital beds they bought 300 beds and mattresses and 600 bed sheets from that money.
Now that is what cutting costs is all about.
The State of the Nation address:
There was great anticipation in the National Assembly chamber in anticipation of the President’s address no signal blocking devices were reported but the EFF made a noisy entrance into the chamber singing.
As Jacob Zuma started his speech there was outcry from certain opposition MPs who interrupted him repeatedly. COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota stated that “Zuma broke his oath of office and is no longer honourable. We can’t listen to someone who has broken his oath. He is no longer fit to lead our people.” When he refused to withdraw his remarks he was asked to leave the chamber, the other members Congress of the People walked out in solidarity with him.
After nearly an hour of trying to raise points of order all the Economic Freedom Fighters MPs stood up, in a well choreographed move, and joined Malema in chanting “Zupta must fall” as they left the chamber
President Zuma’s actual 2016 State of the Nation address (Sona) was very subdued compared to previous years. What was particularly noticeable was the ANC members were less enthusiastic and far more subdued than normal.
Ralph Mathekga, the head of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection was reported as saying. “The president gave the speech in a tense situation. His body language showed a man who was concerned about other things.”
The actual address had a few bright spots, but it is unlikely enough to restore confidence in South Africa and convince ratings agencies not to downgrade the country’s credit rating. Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech will have to provide the nuts and bolts of how the country can avoid a credit downgrading but some analysts believe that Zuma has failed to show any meaningful change in policy direction.
Zuma did announce some concessions on hotly debated issues and promised more curbs on government spending. The major points included:
- A cutback in overseas travel by cabinet ministers and officials with the size of delegations being cut. In future all foreign travel will have to be motivated and the benefits to South Africa specified. Premiers, mayors, and the judiciary have also been requested to eliminate wasteful expenditure
- Although he reaffirmed that the “nuclear energy expansion programme remains part of the future energy mix” for the first time the President emphasised the importance of the affordability of nuclear energy plans, it would be only be done on “a scale and pace that our country can afford”, he said
- Emphasising that ‘State owned Entities’ (SOEs) must be “financially sound”, “properly governed and managed” was a clear indication that a major restructuring of SOEs was imminent. “We have to streamline and sharpen the mandates of the companies and ensure that where there are overlaps in the mandates, there is immediate rationalisation. Those companies no longer relevant to our development agenda will be phased out” he said.
- A proposal for Parliament to consider doing away with two capitals, namely its administrative capital in Pretoria and its legislative one, Parliament in Cape Town.
At present I would regard this as a token proposal at cost cutting, if such a change was to be made it should have been decided in 1994. The argument that the current dispensation requires MP’s to have two homes is a red herring. No matter where Parliament is MP’s will need two homes. If parliament was in Pretoria the MP’s from the three Capes, the Free State and Kwa Zulu Natal will still need two homes.
In any case no matter where the capital is a move that will take years and cost billions for new buildings – if Parliament moves to Durban we would need a new Parliamentary building and office space for four hundred MP’s, ninety members of the NCOP their secretaries, media officers and researchers plus at least four hundred houses.
This is a no goer.
President Zuma wanted the business sector to believe that he was taking them far more seriously than previously. He stated that “We have heard the suggestions from business community on how we can turn the situation around and put the economy back on a growth path.” He added: “We have heard the points about the need to create the correct investment support infrastructure.”
In an attempt to show this support Zuma announced a nine-point plan to boost growth, however, he announced the same nine-point plan in his 2015 Sona and it was not implemented.
The President also tried to do a balancing act on the proposed minimum wage. The proposal is currently being discussed at Nedlac. Zuma said: “It is important to emphasise that the national minimum wage should be implemented in a manner that does not undermine employment creation, the thriving of small businesses or sustained economic growth.”
This cautionary statement may have pleased business but one wonders how it has been received by the ANC’s alliance partners such as Cosatu who have been pressurising government to introduce the national minimum wage of between R4 500 per month and R12 500 per month.
The announcement to introduce a “One Stop Shop/Invest SA initiative” and to cut back on ‘Red Tape’ to make investing in South Africa is to be welcomed.
A Red Tape Reduction Business Helpline was introduced by the DA government in the Western Cape in July 2011 This unit resolves general business-related enquiries (e.g., access to finance or tender information), as well as general red tape-related blockages (e.g. stalled or delayed EIA applications, business registrations, permits and rezoning applications). Little wonder that the Western Cape is the province with the highest growth rate in South Africa.
The repeating of the statement made during the 2015 address about prohibiting non South Africans from owning certain land is hardly the type of announcement that will promote foreign investment.
While showing promise Zuma’s speech failed to show meaningful change in policy direction and is unlikely to promote much increased investment.
Noticeably the President never discussed important issues such as the effects of the Nene debacle, the crises at the Universities or unemployment he obviously had no solutions to offer.
The State of the Nation debate:
Two days were set aside to debate the President’s State of the Nation Address in which members of parliament debate the address.
Considering that this was to be expected that the debate would be a political battle with all parties having one eye on the elections rather than dealing with solving the issues facing the country
There were a number of very good and entertaining speeches but, as was to be expected, the bulk of the attack was directed at the president and the admission by his counsel in the Constitutional Court that the remedial actions ordered by the Public Protector in her report ‘Secure in Comfort’ were in fact binding, an issue that he had tried to dodge.
DA Leader Mmusi Maimane delivered a well thought out speech about the President lives in a whole new planet far from the citizens of South Africa- Planet Zuma. “We came last week to SONA to listen out of respect, we did not come out of respect for Jacob Zuma.” In creating Planet Zuma Maimane appeared to be trying to create a similar image to last year where he described Zuma “a broken man, presiding over a broken society”.
He attacked the failings of Zuma and the government as being oblivious to the plight of ordinary South Africans. He then compared life on Planet Zuma to what South Africa would look like under a DA government and he drew on the success of the Western Cape where his party is in government.
He ended his speech by asking Zuma how he managed to live with his conscience given the harm he had done to the country.
The EFF’s Julius Malema delivered a scathing attack where he listed a number of so-called errors in judgement made by Zuma in his role as president and in his personal life. He concluded by saying his party would not participate in a debate on an “illegitimate” president’s SONA.
The entire EFF caucus left the House after Malema’s speech and never returned for the remainder of the debate.
Even the normally reserved IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi also ripped into Zuma, who he accused of turning a blind eye to the abuse of state resources. “When one listens to the president’s choice of words when announcing cutbacks and efforts at better financial management, the conclusion is inescapable that government has, indeed, gone too far in abusing state resources. It is a damning admission, but a true one,”
Leader of the United Democratic Movement Bantu Holomisa’s contribution was that President Zuma should “Place the unity and interests of the nation first and vacate the office with dignity,”
Mosiuoa Lekota the COPE leader waded into the debate saying the legislature is divided by “factions” – those who try to hold the executive accountable and those who protect it.
This caused a ruckus in the House which led to a heated exchange between the presiding officer, Raseriti Tau, and the DA. DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen told Tau he was “talking rubbish” when he tried to stop Lekota from using the word “faction”.
Tau took serious exception to this, and in the tussle that ensued, Steenhuisen walked out of the chamber after being asked to leave, shouting that he would now be spared having to listen to more “rubbish”.
Once again the impartiality of the presiding officers was called into question. Rulings such as ‘factions’ and ‘rubbish’ being ruled unparliamentarily while the ANC use of the word ‘bullshit’ was condoned when Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane sneaked it into her speech.
COPE spokesperson Dennis Bloem went so far as to say that under Zuma’s rule “Impartiality gave way to open partisan behaviour and an undermining of the Constitution. The opposition was seen as the enemy and all co-operation was ended.”
As was to be expected the ANC had lined up a group of senior members and cabinet ministers who highlighted the achievements of the ANC especially under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma. It was noticeable that they steered clear of defending the President despite the opposition onslaught on his leadership.
On day three the President gave a somewhat muted response to the debate unlike in previous years where he entered the debate in full flight attacking the opposition. It was a radical change from his usual style in that he acknowledged that it’s not just the global factors that have affected the South African economy but that there are factors within our own control that we need to deal with.
Interestingly he also announced that two new special police units were being established. The South African Narcotics Enforcement Bureau and the National Bureau for Illegal Firearms Control and Priority Violent Crime will fall under the Hawks. An issue requested by the DA, since former Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi disbanded them, and championed by DA MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard when she was party spokesperson for police.
Of special interest was that Zuma eventually backed down by concluding with these words “Together we can move SA forward, not for the benefit of a party, but for the benefit of its people.” A far cry from his previous statement that he “puts the interest of the ANC above those of South Africa”.
Now the eyes of the nation will focus on Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan who has the unenviable task of having to present a budget in an election year that will not only reduce borrowings by cutting expenditure, keeping tax increases to a minimum and pleasing the rating agencies but also the voters and the trade unions.
Until next time,
This newsletter is published by Clive Hatch former Leader of the Opposition in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature and former DA Provincial Leader. These views are my personal views and do not represent those of any other person or organisation.