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Sunday Times STLive By Mondli Makhanya, 2012-02-12

The real, unspoken story of the state of the nation speech

Mondli Makhanya
Image: Sunday Times

AS president Jacob Zuma's speeches go, this year's state of the nation address was by far the best performance of his tenure.

I know that it did not take much to improve on previous performances, but let's give credit where it is due.

The man who stood on the podium in parliament on Thursday evening was not just Jacob Zuma; he was worthy of the "president" honorific. He exuded a level of confidence.

The pace of his speech was still halting. The misplaced breaks, odd punctuations and strange emphases were still there, but he was at least not panicky about making boo-boos. Even when he detoured from the speech to ad-lib and crack a joke, he was relaxed. When he did make silly mistakes, he was not flustered. He moved along swiftly.

Clearly he took this address seriously, unlike other years when he seemed to think that the opening of parliament was just an opportunity to show off his bevy.

Not only was it a far cry from last year's speech, but it was a miraculous leap from the ANC centenary speech a month ago, which would have put even the most troublesome newborn to sleep.

This speech had some substance too. There was little of the fanciful promises made in previous years, which had even ANC MPs bellowing with laughter.

For the majority of South Africans who value living in a constitutional democracy, Zuma made this welcome affirmation: "The constitution is South Africa's fundamental vision statement, which guides our policies and actions. We affirm our commitment to advance the ideals of our country's constitution at all times."

It is hoped that, by stating this in the most important speech of the political year, the president will end the corrosive anti-constitution venom that has been coming from senior members of his party - including himself.

We should all underline and highlight this quote and read it back to him and the ANC leadership over and over.

But there was also a lot lacking in the speech. It was not even a modest work of art. Very obviously written with an eye on the December election in Mangaung, a lot was just simply thrown into the speech for maximum impact. As a result, it was all over the show and lacked a clear story line and discernible theme.

And because of its self-congratulatory nature, it failed to properly deal with the biggest catastrophe facing this nation: an education system which, despite improvements in the matric pass rate, is still producing ill-equipped citizens.

Here was an opportunity to issue an uncompromising reprimand to the people who are squashing the fragile brains of this country' working-class children: the teacher unions.

It is clear that no matter how many innovative interventions the state makes and how much more money it pumps into the system, the teacher unions remain a huge boulder in the way of progress.

It makes no sense for Zuma to "thank the teacher unions for supporting this campaign" to have teachers "in class on time, teaching for at least seven hours a day" while the Eastern Cape teacher fiasco is staring you in the face.

Having accused the president of jumping all over the show in his speech, I will now commit the same crime.

The reason I am doing so is that it was not in the substance and delivery that the real nugget lay. It was in the great unsaid.

Looming large over the speech was the figure of Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba. Thursday night may have belonged to Zuma, but in reality it was Gigaba's show. Of all the concrete projects announced, it was those in his portfolio that dominated.

With a billion-odd rands in his top pocket, Gigaba is set to be the central figure in driving the infrastructure rejuvenation and expansion programme. It will be at the centre of the economic growth path over the next few years.

It will include the building and improvement of rail, road and port infrastructure and the continuing expansion of power-generation capacity.

This strategic role will make Gigaba arguably the most powerful man in the land. Watch the queue outside his door grow. He should expect lots of dinner, Sunday lunch and religious feast invitations from the Gupta family.

It is no secret that the 40-year-old Gigaba has ambitions for higher office in party and state. While the push for "generational mix" in ANC leadership came from those wanting Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula's elevation, Gigaba has not sat back. There is a determined, but subtle, effort by his lobbyists to ensure that he emerges in a powerful party role come Mangaung. From there, they believe, a further rise in 2017 will be inevitable.

Observe how he has thrust himself forward as one of the thinkers on the country's economic direction. You can bet your bottom yen, dollar and rupee that his pivotal place in South Africa's economic growth over the next few years will be put to maximum use. THAT is the real story of Thursday night's address.