Zuma: a more prosperous nation

President Jacob Zuma puts the finishing
touches to his State of the Nation speech.
(Image: The Presidency)

Parliament’s National Assembly chamber.
(Image: Wikimedia)

The national guard of honour, welcoming
parliamentarians to the precinct.
(Image: Parliament)

Janine Erasmus

Less than a month after his inauguration, newly elected president Jacob Zuma delivered his first State of the Nation address at the opening of Parliament in Cape Town today.

The State of the Nation address is an annual communication between the president and the people. It focuses on the current state of affairs and takes place at a joint sitting of the National Assembly or lower house of Parliament, and the National Council of Provinces, the upper house that replaced the senate in 1994.

Members are called to the address by the president, through the Speaker of the National Assembly and the chair of the National Council of Provinces. The current Speaker is Max Sisulu of the African National Congress (ANC), assisted by his deputy Nomaindia Mfeketo, mayor of Cape Town from 2002 to 2006. Both were elected on 6 May 2009 after the ANC’s triumph in the 2009 general election.

Susulu is the son of freedom stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisulu. He is the first male to preside as Speaker in the democratic South Africa, and is the first black male ever to hold the position.

The chair of the National Council of Provinces is Mninwa Johannes Mahlangu of the ANC, who has held the position since 2005.

Zuma spoke to the nation as the head of state, not of the government. It is important to make the distinction because a government essentially is an element of state.

The parliamentary theme for 2009 is “Parliament entrenching people-centred democracy in achieving development goals”. It signifies that Parliament aims to empower people, through public participation processes and law-making, to hold their leaders to their promises of good governance and service delivery.

Pressing issues

As expected, several pressing issues formed the focus of the president’s speech. Zuma touched on the priority areas of economy, health, sustainable resources management, job creation and skills development, crime, education, rural development, and regional integration and the promotion of the continent. All fall under the umbrella of government’s Medium Term Strategic Framework for 2009 to 2014.

South Africa’s economy is in recession for the first time in 17 years. With workers’ unions increasingly restive and possible strikes on the horizon, Zuma hastened to assure the nation that government was not sitting idle but was implementing several measures to protect citizens.

“It is more important now than ever that we work in partnership on a common programme to response to this crisis,” he said. “We must act now to minimise the impact of this downturn on those most vulnerable.”

To fight the rising threat of job losses, the government has entered into an agreement, in principle, with social partners to introduce a training layoff. This means that workers who face retrenchment will not lose their jobs but will rather undergo training in new skills, or the enhancement of their existing skills.

Zuma praised the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, an independent statutory body, for their work in saving over 4 000 jobs through mediation, and for providing support for retrenched workers.

He announced that the Department of Trade and Industry‘s Industrial Policy Action Plan will be intensified, with a number of sectors identified for targeted development. These include the automotive, chemicals, metal fabrication, tourism, clothing and textiles, and forestry sectors.

Job creation in other sectors such as services and light manufacturing and construction will also receive attention.

Government’s Expanded Public Works Programme is another strategy focusing on job creation through temporary work opportunities in infrastructure development, environmental affairs, and social and community programmes.

The Department of Public Works took just four years to reach its initial target of a million new jobs, a full year ahead of schedule. The even more ambitious phase two will see 4-million people find meaningful employment by 2014, with 500 000 of those in place by December 2009.

Amongst the unemployed, the social grant system remains the most effective form of poverty alleviation, said Zuma. More than 30-million citizens, of whom 8-million are children, receive social grants. It is important, he added, to link social grants to job opportunities and thus encourage self-reliance amongst the able-bodied.

Through state tasks such as procurement, financial support and licensing, government plans to support small and medium sized businesses and promote the continued implementation of its policy of black economic empowerment. Much of the focus will remain on women, youth and the disabled.

Zuma was adamant that the global economic downturn would not alter the forward motion of South Africa’s development.

Infrastructure development

Government’s second priority is that of infrastructure development. Zuma referred to the new Infrastructure Development Cluster that will keep a close eye on the proper use of the US$98-billion (R787-billion) allocated for infrastructure expenditure.

Schools, housing, water and sanitation, and public transport including bus rapid transport systems, are all due for a slice of the pie. The biggest infrastructure investment is in the 2010 Fifa World Cup, with billions already spent on upgrading roads, airports, stadiums, and hospitality.

“We pledged that the World Cup will leave a proud legacy for our children and communities,” said Zuma, “and we are on track to meet all obligations. South Africa will deliver the best World Cup ever.”

All systems are in place for the Confederations Cup, which kicks off in mid-June. The president expects the World Cup forerunner to be a huge success.

The taxi industry has recently demonstrated its protest against the bus rapid transport systems which are currently under construction in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Zuma had promised outraged taxi drivers that he would defer discussions until after the April election. Negotiations would resume on 11 June, he said, expressing his confidence that all parties will be satisfied with the outcome.

Another important project is the continued roll-out of digital broadcasting infrastructure. Government planned to ensure that the cost of telecommunications is reduced through a number of projects already underway, such as the construction of major undersea cables, to expand the country’s broadband capacity. He was emphatic that rural areas be included in broadband coverage.

Housing remains a top priority, but building caring communities is just as important as building houses, said Zuma, and ensuring that people have access to social amenities including sport and recreation.

Zuma announced that government and Parliament would work together to speed up the processing of the Land Use Management Bill, which will see the establishment of a new operating framework for land use management, at national, provincial and municipal levels.

Rural development

Moving on to the next priority, that of rural development, Zuma said that such development and reform must be linked to food security. The Greater Giyane municipality in Limpopo is the first area to undergo development under the government’s campaign, and will serve as an example for the whole country.

Schemes such as the Neighbourhood Development Grant programme will allow not only the towns, but the areas around them to experience a surge in their economies.

Education

A key priority for the next five years, the ongoing development of South Africa’s schools will see them grow into models of excellence. Another task is to ensure that all preschool children have access to Grade R, the reception year.

Zuma called on all teachers and pupils to set examples of good behaviour. Children should do their homework and respect their teachers, while teachers should not neglect their duty towards their charges.

The Department of Education has embarked on a campaign to encourage all pupils to complete at least their secondary education. The department aims to increase enrolment in secondary schools to 95% by 2014, at the same time bringing back pupils who dropped out, and supporting them through their remaining secondary school years.

Swift and harsh consequences will fall on those who abuse their authority through sexual harassment or violence towards pupils, especially girls.

The Kha ri Gude adult literacy programme was introduced in early 2008 with the aim of teaching 4.7-million adults to read and write by the end of 2012. The Department of Education, said Zuma, plans to intensify the campaign and deepen its reach.

Healthcare

The president expressed his regret for the deterioration in quality of healthcare and increase in disease, and committed his government to the reduction of the current inequalities in healthcare provision, in line with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Zuma pledged to revitalise hospitals and clinics, providing the facilities to intensify the fight against HIV, Aids, and tuberculosis.

The implementation of a comprehensive plan for the treatment and management of HIV and Aids was paramount, with the target of a 50% reduction in the number of new infections by 2011. In the same time frame, antiretroviral medication would be provided to at least 80% of those who need the treatment.

Zuma alluded briefly to the recent doctors’ strike over pay, when he promised to give attention to the remuneration of health professionals.

Crime

The reformation of the criminal justice system, said Zuma, is a major factor in the fight against crime, and would result in more efficient courts and prosecutors. Efforts have already begun to boost detective, forensic and intelligence services.

The newly-established Ministry of Police emphasises the fact that government means business. The target for the reduction of violent crimes is between 7 and 10% per year. Government has met this target consistently but, said Zuma, more needs to be done.

Organised crime and crimes against women and children are also to receive the new ministry’s full attention. Among other initiatives, Zuma mentioned the establishment of a border management agency, greater efforts to eradicate cyber crime and identity theft, and improved rehabilitation systems in the country’s jails to cut down on the number of repeat offenders.

In the move towards a crime-free society, judicial independence and accountability, and full access to justice for all were imperative. Zuma reiterated government’s commitment to stamping out corruption in the public sector, but he also called on citizens to play their part in fighting crime by participating in community policing forums, not buying stolen goods, and reporting crime.

National pride

Unity in diversity, said Zuma, would move the nation forward and build a common national identity, giving citizens the motivation to be more active in the renewal of South Africa. It was vital that children know all about the national symbols and the constitution, as that knowledge would equip them for growth into productive South Africans.

Sport is a powerful tool for nation-building. South Africans must support all their national teams, said Zuma, including the Proteas, Bafana Bafana, the Springboks, Banyana Banyana and the paraplegic team.

He took a moment to congratulate those national teams who have done the country proud in recent weeks. The women’s netball team took top honours in the tri-nation challenge against Fiji and Botswana. The Springbok Sevens rugby team are the reigning world champions. The Blue Bulls won the fiercely-contested Super 14 rugby tournament.

Investment on a large scale in sports development would promote the already substantial national pride in sport, as would the inclusion of sport in the school curriculum.

Partnerships

The main goal of government, said the president, is to ensure that foreign relations contribute to the ongoing climate of sustained growth and development. Support of African Union initiatives, as well as those implemented by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, will ensure that the African continent remains a priority.

South Africa has a proud record in peace-keeping efforts and mediation on the continent, and will continue to uphold the principles of democracy and human rights. Elsewhere, the country will not hesitate to assist with reconstruction, especially in post-conflict situations. Here Zuma specifically mentioned the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Closer to home, Zuma acknowledged that the crisis in Zimbabwe had taken a toll on the southern African region, and especially South Africa. He called on all peace-loving countries to support the new Zimbabwean regime as it worked for economic recovery.

Era of renewal

In the current era of renewal, the Presidency would lead by example in the field of public liaison. Not only would letters and emails be welcomed, said the president, but each one would be handled as if it were the only one. Citizens could also look forward to the establishment of a hotline.

Zuma concluded his address with the announcement of a new South African public holiday. To celebrate esteemed elder statesman Nelson Mandela, who turns 91 in June, 18 May is to be known as Mandela Day. The president encouraged people to devote at least 67 minutes of their time on that day to helping others – one minute for each year of Mandela’s political career.

“Madiba taught us that this country belongs to all, black and white,” said Zuma. “Working for reconciliation and unity will remain important as we move forward. Fellow South Africans, working together we can do more to realise our common vision of a better and more prosperous nation!”

Auspicious

The State of the Nation address was followed by a debate in the joint sitting, where political parties were encouraged to give their opinions and ask questions.

The opening of Parliament is always an auspicious occasion, and something of a style parade, although it was not always so. During the apartheid regime the public image of Parliament was grey and dour, with politicians vying with each other to see who could be the most nondescript.

The inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected leader changed the face of Parliament forever. By wearing his famous Madiba shirt, with its loose styling and colourful patterns, inside the hallowed chamber, Mandela did away with the greyness and brought glamour and style into Parliament. Despite its casual appearance, the Madiba shirt is accepted as formal wear.

Today members are seen in outfits that range from traditional attire to the highest couture, in every colour of the Rainbow nation. Whatever the religious or tribal affiliation, Parliament has seen an outfit to match. Every year fashion aficionados carefully scrutinise the crowds to identify which trends to follow for the season.

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