Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

Today, President Jacob Zuma delivers his state of the nation (Sona) speech, a ritual now sadly infused with cynicism. Once, there was a nine-point plan; before that, there was the National Development Plan, the Industrial Policy Action Plan, Operation Phakisa and so on. They all promised more growth, more development, more prosperity, better education and healthcare and more jobs.

Alas, far from the 5% economic growth recorded as the necessary quantum for real poverty alleviation in the National Development Plan, over the past decade, growth has averaged less than half that – and it’s falling. Growth over the past five years was on average 1.75% a year, down from the decade-long average of 2%. That is about half the average growth recorded since democracy.

The year 2016 was dominated by the local government elections, which underlined the sense of disappointment many South Africans feel with their government. The most notable meme of 2016 was "state capture". Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was attacked on flimsy charges and the country held its breath in case he lost his position.

In response to this brutal year, the government and its supporters show signs of doing precisely the wrong thing: ramping up the rhetoric and seeking out scapegoats. Arguably, the meme of 2017 is going to be "white monopoly capital", suggesting an epic struggle now disturbingly cast in racial terms between economic classes.

The approach is inflammatory, divisive and, frankly, edging towards desperation.

So let’s dream a bit. How does SA get out of this predicament? What would we like to see in the state of the nation speech?

First, the president needs to explicitly unify the country, and that means emphasising the constitutional dictum that SA belongs to all who live in it and there is no group with a devious underhanded plan to hold anyone else back.

Naturally, the aim is inclusive growth that disproportionately benefits those excluded in the past. But the notion that the lack of progress over the past few years is the result of a deliberate ploy by a cabal of hateful capitalists is noxious and deserves an explicit presidential put-down.

Second, the speech needs to assure South Africans that the country is not going to be ripped apart or go into stasis while the ANC makes up its mind about its new leader. Already, the leadership battle is interfering with the functioning of the government. One way Zuma could bridge the divide is to explicitly endorse his finance minister. The position of the president is to be a unifying force, not a factional convener. He should stand above the fray and make sure governance happens. Too much to ask? Possibly, but it shouldn’t be.

Third, he needs to refocus the country on economic growth, above all. Of course, the responsibility of governments throughout the world is to ensure that economic growth is shared by all and not monopolised by one group or the other. But there is no point in debating the issue of distribution if there isn’t anything to distribute.

Fourth, given the extent of corruption scandals that are beginning to be exposed on a regular basis, Zuma has to be unrelentingly explicit about what precisely the government intends doing to combat people who try to enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense. The fragile thing that constitutes the broad South African consensus cannot sustain another year in which business people offer rubbish bags full of money to cabinet ministers and nothing happens to them.

Well, it was good to dream for a moment. Perhaps some of these ideas will appear in tonight’s speech. Perhaps they won’t. But if they don’t, there is little doubt the governing party should brace itself for a reckoning with the electorate.

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