IF WE exclude election year replays when we are treated to two state-of- the-nation speeches a few weeks apart, tomorrow’s address to a joint sitting of the national assembly and the national council of provinces 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, and many, if not most, would say “jobs, education and inequality”. Or they may just say “inequality” which is the consequence of failure in the other two areas.
These have become the acknowledged priorities as we prepare to enter our third decade of freedom from apartheid.
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 the Middle East apart.
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 a wage pays for – and the threat of inequality will continue to grow.
So 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 burned, but we have been slow to put them front and centre of government policy, where they have belonged all along.
When Nelson Mandela launched us down this democratic road with the first state of the nation address on May 24 1994, he and his government had everything to do and the optimism of the world at their backs.
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, Tambo, 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 said the word “employment” once in that historic speech, “jobs” twice and “education” three times.
“We must invest substantial amounts in education and training and meet our commitment to introduce free and compulsory education for a period of at least nine years. Everywhere we must re-inculcate 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 encouraging tourism.
“We must also be clear that we must pay increased attention to tourism. The jobs and foreign currency which tourism generates will strongly influence our economy. The government is determined forcefully to confront the scourge of unemployment, not by way of handouts but by the creation of work opportunities,” Mandela said.
When Thabo Mbeki gave his first State of the Nation speech in 1999, “employment” got two mentions, “jobs” one and “education” three. Inequality still did not get a specific mention.
“Consistent with our concentration on this objective, including the critical importance of jobs, the government remains preoccupied with the issue of gold sales and their impact on gold mining, employment and export earnings, both in our own country and the rest of our continent,” Mbeki said.
All that has changed now, 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 a little more forceful about governance issues than we have come to expect of him. The improvement has been off a low base and it has been nothing extraordinary, but there has been a change of tone.
This week’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 amongst his supporters who would put their self interest, which usually translates into self-enrichment, ahead of the national interest.
Credibility will be a challenge when he speaks tomorrow because none of the programmes he has announced in the past two years have 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 happen.
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 looking for a safe and productive investment.
Now that Zuma and the ANC have embraced Trevor Manuel’s National Development Plan (NDP), he needs to sell it to the remaining doubters in his government – and they are not just a few – and to 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 which an improved education system will create and, with those two factors in place, the wealth gap will begin, albeit it 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.
Brendan Boyle is the editor of the Daily Dispatch