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Zuma's state of the nation address: nothing but farce and fisticuffs

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Let’s face it. Over the last three years the annual State of the Nation address in South Africa has become embarrassing. First the citizens of the country tune into the usual punch-up between the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters EFF and parliamentary security. Then, with the light entertainment over, they have to sit through President Jacob Zuma droning his way through a speech, punctuated by giggles, which rarely offers little beyond what people already know.

Then, if they don’t want to suffer through interminable talking heads, they potter off to bed. Instead of being a dignified showpiece of South African democracy, it’s all become a bit ridiculous.

There is certainly a bright side to the annual contretemps. The EFF, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) increasingly in hot pursuit, has chosen the opportunity to expose President Zuma for what he is.

EFF MP Mbuyeseni Ndlozi summed him up nicely when he called him a “constitutional delinquent”. The fundamental point that the EFF has been making, again and again, is that Zuma has been in breach of the constitution, that he is not fit to be president, and that the governing African National Congress should have removed him from office. Good for them.

They have voiced the views of a very large slice of South Africa – including many within the ANC itself. That Zuma has had to deliver his speech to a chamber in which only the governing ANC’s MPs remain (with the odd exception) speaks volumes to his political illegitimacy. Parliament may have become a rough-house in the process, but at least it’s a clear indication that South Africans are ready to fight for their democracy.

The ANC should draw the lesson that South Africans at large are unlikely to tolerate the ongoing descent of our politics into the gutter without strident resistance – and in the streets, if necessary.

Theatre of the absurd

However, the other side of the coin is the sheer absurdity the state of the nation address has become. The address provides an opportunity for South Africa to enjoy a spot in the international limelight, a chance to say to the world:

here we are, our democracy is working, we have got major problems, but we are working hard at solving them.

As it is, it presently shows the country up as thoroughly chaotic. I can’t imagine that Donald Trump was watching, but someone will show him the YouTube video and it will only reinforce his image of South Africa as a crime-ridden, corrupt neck of the woods which Americans should do their best to avoid. Bye bye all those privileges under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa)!

The ratings agencies, however, are likely to have been taking more serious interest in the proceedings. The events in parliament won’t have done the country’s standing any good at all. Of course, they might take more cognisance than Trump of the actual content of Zuma’s speech, but as he didn’t really say anything that was new – except that radical economic transformation would get speeded up without specifying how – they are unlikely to have been impressed. Oh, I forgot: he did mention that South Africa is on the way up – with a past growth rate of 0.5% likely to increase to 1.3% this coming year. But that’s scarcely anything to get excited about.

So what should South Africans be hoping for out of a state of the nation speech?

What should be in a state of the nation address

First of all, it would be a great help if the country had a president capable of a decent delivery. Zuma has long proved himself an able singer and dancer at ANC rallies. Fortunately, he has spared us that in parliament.

But it’s long been obvious that he is unable to deliver a speech written in English with any sort of panache. Does this matter? Is this simply a blatantly Eurocentric comment imbued with all sorts of whiteness? Maybe it is, and if so I apologise. But I think it does matter.

When a global audience is tuning in, they won’t understand a word of isiZulu, Zuma’s vernacular. In short, South Africa is always going to need more of a Thabo Mbeki than a Zuma if it wants to communicate globally as well as locally. The country needs a president capable of assuring it that he (or she) has actually read the speech in advance, and is on top of the ideas and facts being presented. If the odd rhetorical flourish is thrown in, to keep everyone awake and interested, all the better.

Which brings us to what should really be the whole point of the exercise: content.

How best should this be conveyed? It should not be necessary to consult a public speaking guru to inform a president that stuffing a speech full of facts and statistics and rabbiting on for ages is likely to turn off any audience.

Far too often, state of the nation addresses have had a turgid “round the houses” quality to them, as if the presidency has told every ministerial department to send it a few paragraphs for inclusion in an annual bureaucratic memorandum to the people.

Instead, the approach should be: What are the few major points that the president wants to convey? What does he/she want the speech remembered for? What have been the major achievements and setbacks pursued during the previous year? What are the major policies to be pursued over the next year, and how do they speak to the problems that South Africa is confronting?

In other words, cut the crap and home in on the key issues that the president wants to convey to the audience. And do it within 45 minutes at most.

If the state of the nation address is to recover any constructive – and dignified – purpose in the political calendar, other than reminding South Africans of the bankruptcy of the present administration, then far more is needed than a greater security presence in the parliamentary precinct.

But don’t hold your breath. Unless a thoroughly divided ANC summons up the courage to remove Zuma from power and replace him with someone more able and decent, South Africa still has two more Zuma performances to go. In which case, there is yet more farce and fisticuffs to come.

Not even a stronger military presence in and around parliament will be able to spare either Zuma or the ANC their annual humiliation. Alas for them: it will only get worse.

The ConversationRoger Southall receives funding from the National Research Foundation.

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