We can bask in sunshine if inequality is tackled

14 February 2013 - 02:20 By Brendan Boyle
Brendan Boyle
Brendan Boyle
Image: The Dispatch

If we exclude election year replays when we are treated to two state of the nation speeches a few weeks apart, tonight's address to parliament and the nation will be the 20th of our still young democracy.

Ask any woman or man in the street what they would like President Jacob Zuma to focus on in this Valentine's Day speech many, if not most, would say "jobs, education and inequality".

It is becoming common cause that, without an evident narrowing of the gap between the richest and the poorest among us, South Africa is doomed to erupt one day into the sort of violence that is tearing apart the Middle East.

Without better education to make them employable, the majority of young men and women leaving school will continue to face a lifetime on the outside, looking in at those who have the things for which a wage pays - and the threat of inequality will continue to grow.

However he phrases it, it is safe to bet that jobs, education and inequality will feature strongly in Zuma's speech.

They should have been priorities since the day the last "Whites Only" sign was burnt, but we have been slow to put them front and centre of government policy.

When Nelson Mandela launched us down this democratic road with the first state of the nation address on May 24 1994, he had everything to do and the optimism of the world at his back.

He could pick which among the myriad of challenges he would focus on. The phrase he left ringing in our ears that day was "reconstruction and development". It even had its own minister, Jay Naidoo.

Optimism buoyed the poor for the next few years as they watched the grey-shoed apartheid mandarins make way for liberators with names like Sisulu, Mbeki and Slovo. They accepted that the South African nirvana could not be built in a year or two, and they were willing to wait.

The problem is that those who have missed the empowerment bus - or should it be train? - are still waiting.

Mandela uttered "employment" once in that historic speech, "jobs" twice and "education" thrice.

"We must invest in education ... Everywhere we must reinculcate the culture of learning and of teaching and make it possible for this culture to thrive," he said.

Employment was mentioned only in the context of tourism.

When Thabo Mbeki gave his first state of the nation speech in 1999, "employment" got two mentions, "jobs" one and "education" three. Inequality got no specific mention.

Now, however, all that has changed as the apartheid legacy of black unemployment becomes, if anything, even more entrenched.

In his speech last year, Zuma acknowledged the virtuous circle: jobs will promote equality; education will promote jobs. He mentioned employment and education 10 times each and jobs five times. Inequality got eight mentions.

But that was still the Zuma of largely empty rhetoric. He said the right things but didn't follow up with the necessary action.

In the weeks since his Mangaung victory, Zuma has appeared a little more presidential and forceful about governance issues. The improvement is of a low base and nothing extraordinary, but there has been a change of tone.

Tonight's speech gives him another opportunity to show this new side of himself, to convince the electorate that Mangaung has given him the courage to say "no" to those among his supporters who would put their self-interest ahead of the national interest.

Credibility will be a challenge when he speaks tonight because none of the programmes he has announced in the past two years has gathered much momentum.

He has to get behind them again with an evident will to smash the mainly union-created logjams, and he has to pitch some new ideas to an audience understandably jaundiced about big ideas that never materialise.

Amid the policy uncertainty the Zuma government created during its first three years, there has been little incentive to commit to long-term investment projects.

He needs to make good on the promise to create an enabling environment for business to thrive. The private sector has billions in cash and is looking for a safe and productive investment.

Now that Zuma and the ANC have embraced Trevor Manuel's National Development Plan, he needs to sell it to the remaining doubters in his government - and they are not just a few - and convince the investment community that the commitment is unequivocal and long-term.

The NDP has answers to the education crisis. It has plans to use the skills that an improved education system will create and, with those two factors in place, the wealth gap will begin, albeit slowly, to close.

Then we won't need a South African spring to match the Arab one. We will all be basking in our own summer sun.