Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUPPLIED
Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUPPLIED

It is sometimes said of politicians that they are all hat and no rabbit. It isn’t always true: Clement Attlee, the formidable but undemonstrative British prime minister of the 1940s, was all substance and no show. But in the case of President Jacob Zuma, the inescapable fact is that there is neither show nor substance.

Zuma’s state of the nation address last week (or state against the nation, as Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane dubbed it) was an embarrassingly obvious cut-and-paste job, with little new and barely any attempt to re-package what we knew already.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

There was no charm, no rhetorical flourish to mitigate the lack of content. Zuma read his speech as if he had chanced upon it for the first time — and treated it as a script to cure insomnia.

He looks tired, and on the other side of the podium, the country is exhausted by him too.

It was significant that the currency hardly reacted to the speech. The violent ejection of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the walkout by the DA, the inability of speaker Baleka Mbete to keep control, Mbete’s ignorance of the rules of parliament and the poverty of the speech’s content — this was just a replay of what happened last year.

Citizens of various political persuasions shook their heads, and changed the channel. Even the customary applause from the ANC benches was especially mechanical and lacklustre this year.

But if there was a theme to a speech that was apparently cobbled together from random sentences provided by different ministers, it was “radical economic transformation” — the sort of phrase that hints at terrifying changes, but is robbed of any force by the utter absence of detail.

The truth is that SA does need radical change, but vague and impractical populist ideas that amount to simply taking from A and giving to B aren’t helpful

So what indeed is “radical economic transformation”? The best Zuma could do was explain that he wants to “deconcentrate economic power” because “a small grouping controls most of a market”. He said that “the majority is still disempowered”, with “only 10% of the top 100 companies owned by black South Africans”.

Other than as a lamentation of the status quo, this was thin gruel indeed. In particular, there was no tangible suggestion of how things can be changed — or how any changes can be funded.

On the emotional issue of land restitution, there was a vague appeal to successful claimants to “keep the land” (which many have neither the capital nor expertise to farm) instead of being paid out in cash (the option which 90% prefer).

There was a promise to help small black farmers operate on a large commercial scale — a contradiction. He also expressed hope that “trust issues will be addressed” in finalising the mining charter. But it was an old record containing nothing but elevator music.

Of the herd of elephants in the room — such as the governance crises at state-owned entities, and the campaign from within the ANC against the finance minister — there was not a word.

Even when Zuma did give specifics, like when he said Eskom “will sign” an agreement with independent power producers, this means nothing given that Eskom has refused to align with SA’s national energy policy.

Zuma’s address was another opportunity to show his clear direction, but he spurned it.

The truth is that SA does need radical change, but vague and impractical populist ideas that amount to simply taking from A and giving to B aren’t helpful. A genuine radical plan would be to implement the National Development Plan and create jobs. But, having missed the chance to do just this for years, Zuma is increasingly seeking quick answers. So when he speaks largely of “control” and “ownership” of the economy, he betrays his real intention: to simply survive in office and look after his friends.

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