A much wiser Zuma is over his Rubicon

12 February 2012 - 02:01 By Caiphus Kgosana

No 'Winds of Change', but president has learnt from his mistakes, writes Caiphus Kgosana

Image: Sunday Times
Image: Sunday Times

Every president or great leader has the speech that defines his time. Harold Macmillan, Britain's postwar Conservative prime minister, made his famous "Winds of Change" speech in 1960, lecturing his hosts, South Africa - a country on the verge of international pariah status - on the need to accept the rise in black nationalism throughout the African continent.

His speech so incensed conservatives in Britain that it led to the rise of the Monday Club, a resistance movement formed to preserve the values of conservatism.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King stood on a podium in Washington DC in August 1963 and told his audience he "had a dream". A year later, Nelson Mandela told an apartheid court charging him with high treason that he was "prepared to die".

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of an independent India, delivered a speech on the stroke of midnight on August 15 1947 to mark the end of 200 years of British rule. His speech became famous for the "tryst in destiny" remark.

Thabo Mbeki, on the verge of taking over from Mandela in 1996, told the world he "was an African".

Jacob Zuma, third president of a democratic South Africa, gave his 2012 state of the nation address on Thursday. It was not a speech that defined his presidency, but it came close. And what it lacked in mystery and drama, it made up for in substance and punch.

Much has been written about Zuma's lack of formal education, poor language grasp and lack of oratorical skills.

Presentation aside, this was a speech that Zuma was comfortable to make. Short, clear and well-crafted sentences gave it a smooth structure, allowing him to orate without much effort.

Critics say the speech contained ventures that had been announced by the government before, but fell apart at implementation. They say it lacked detail. But stripping it of too much detail actually worked.

Zuma cluttered his 2011 state of the nation address with broad promises. Declaring it the year of jobs, he made bold declarations on job-creation targets and committed his government to costly initiatives aimed at reducing unemployment.

The global economy intervened, and government was quickly reminded that job creation depends largely on external forces. When demand is down, output and consumption decrease dramatically.

It was not surprising when it emerged on Thursday that there hadn't been a great appetite among manufacturers to invest in new factories or expand their existing operations, despite the dangled carrot of billions in tax breaks.

Only R8.4-billion of the R20-billion the government set aside in tax breaks for new manufacturing ventures had been taken up. The jobs fund didn't do that well either. Companies accessed only R1-billion of the R9-billion available to them to make it easier to employ more people.

By over-committing on jobs in 2011, Zuma placed himself in the firing line, and it wasn't long before accusations of "failed to deliver on his promises" started flying.

A much wiser president has changed tack this time around. He has shifted focus from targets that are easily measurable to infrastructure-led growth that requires massive capital and human investment and is measured through long-term targets.

Integrated rail, road and water infrastructure development in Limpopo and Mpumalanga; improvement of the Gauteng-Free State-Durban corridor; a R200-billion rail upgrade driven by transport utility Transnet; and a reduction in port charges to drive up exports.

The difference from Mbeki, who initiated similar road and rail projects, is that Zuma hasn't deferred implementation.

None of the ministers who will be driving these projects were mentioned by name. This is a president who is saying to the nation: "I am in charge. These are my projects, and blame me if they do not get off the ground."

He has also put in motion initiatives started by his predecessors, but which became stuck somewhere in the planning phase.

Finally, after years of debate and consultation, low-income earners who do not qualify for RDP houses will receive an R83000 subsidy to assist them to obtain home loans.

He has also allocated money for work to start on building new universities in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, a plan which dates back to 2003, when the late Kader Asmal was still education minister. Read between the lines and the message is: "I am delivering where others promised."

That message will not have gone unnoticed in the ANC, where he is eyeing another term as party president, a stamp that effectively guarantees him another term as the country's president.

Politically, he is miles ahead of any other potential candidate. He is consolidating his power in the provinces, has dealt harshly with the threat posed by Julius Malema and has neutralised other party pretenders.

With four months to go to the ANC's policy conference, he also used the state of the nation address to cleverly sidestep two issues that will generate heated debate at the policy indaba: the banning of labour brokers and the nationalisation of mines.

"Government seeks to eliminate all forms of abusive practices inherent in labour broking in order to strengthen the protection of vulnerable workers," he said.

Labour federation Cosatu, which wants a ban on labour broking, would have been happy that Zuma at least mentioned the issue, but would have been disappointed that he didn't announce an outright ban.

On mining, Zuma struck a critical balance that would have allayed the fears of many of the mining CEOs who had just completed a four-day Mining Indaba in Cape Town.

"We remain committed to the creation of a favourable and globally competitive mining sector, and to promote the industry to attract investment and achieve both industrial growth and much-needed transformation."

The mining bosses would have understood this to mean South Africa is still open for business, while those advocating nationalisation might interpret it to mean that their demand is still up for debate.

This was not Zuma's winds of change speech. This was not at the level of Mandela, Mbeki or Nehru. But for a president prone to bumbling, who was unsure of himself and made key strategic blunders - especially in high-profile appointments - he might just have crossed his own Rubicon.