Great Expectations: The 2007 State of the Nation Address
By Aubrey Matshiqi
The State of the Nation Address is a ship that sails into waves of expectation. These expectations are shaped by forces such as our history of colonialism and apartheid, race class and - in a less obvious manner - by gender. Another challenge that faces our Head of State is that of balancing the expectations and interests of our two nations. The majority nation expects the State of the Nation speech to be an indication of the extent to which the next twelve months will deepen the project of building a society which should become the antithesis of apartheid society by giving meaningful content to the promise of 'a better life for all'. Since this promise is seen to be about 'a better life for all' South Africans, the minority nation that benefited from decades of apartheid developmental patterns wants this annual ritual to be either about the consolidation of their social and economic gains or the defence of their sense of belonging in a post-apartheid context.
All this raises questions about what we, as citizens, mean when we say the speech was 'good', 'businesslike' or was 'lacking in detail'. What do we mean when we say it was a 'cut and paste' exercise which restated national goals that are already well established? Should there be a new way each year of articulating the challenges facing post-apartheid South Africa?
I propose that we do at least three things when we analyse any State of the Nation Address. We must acknowledge that what has been delivered by the post-apartheid government in the short period of thirteen years of our democracy is unprecedented anywhere in the world. We must also acknowledge that there are objective factors in both the domestic and global environment that militate against the achievement of our national goals at the desired pace and scope. But we must concede that deficits have emerged since the advent of democracy despite what has been achieved. This entails accepting that some of the failures have emerged as a result of policy design processes, policy content and policy implementation processes that are not properly synergised. This element is compounded by the reality of the weakness of some of the subjective policy choices made by the ruling party and our government since 1994.
Having established this analytical framework, we must remember that the core challenge of our transition cannot be explained in terms of a clash between the expectations of citizens and lack of delivery. It must be understood more in terms of a tension between expectations on the one hand, and the pace and scope of delivery on the other. This is a much more helpful approach to analysing the State of the Nation Address because we are forced not to look at the speech as an event, but as part of a process which includes placing a particular State of the Nation speech in the context of previous speeches, other pronouncements that the African National Congress (ANC) and our government have made in the past and our independent understanding of the challenges facing our country.
This framework notwithstanding, there are times when the nation will be seized by a single issue and the President's speech will be judged on the basis of how he handled that particular subject. This year and for a few weeks prior to the parliamentary pomp, ceremony and the speech we were seized by the issue of crime and the decision of First National Bank (FNB) to have the president's postbox flooded with letters from the 'How can we help you?' brigade. The issue for me was never about whether the President will talk about crime or not. The question was whether he would address crime in the manner demanded by FNB and others. The President dedicated a lot of time to crime but I am not as certain as I was a few days ago that he was motivated by concerns expressed in the public domain. What I know is that the FNB has asked for an opportunity to propitiate the President to atone for the sin of thinking a head of state must show leadership when the nation becomes emotional about crime. I hope, however, that whatever mistakes were made during the FNB debate we will still be able to focus more urgently on finding solutions to the social and economic causes of crime while we enhance the capacity of the state to police our neighbourhoods effectively. The President must ask himself whether it is not time to look beyond the deployment of financial resources and more police personnel in the fight against crime and think more carefully about the leadership that is available to the country in this fight against the pernicious effects of crime.
Since the performance of our economy is something Mbeki often receives kudos for, he must bear in mind that the inequalities of his two nations thesis are still with us. Ours is not a story of two economies but one of an economy that delivers mainly to capital and the middle classes. Our sound economic indicators are not the lived reality of all South Africans. Our reality is that of a coincidence of conditions of development for those who are beneficiaries of economic growth, and conditions of underdevelopment for many who are part of the ANC's constituency. We must therefore not be glib in our inputs about the Basic Income Grant (BIG) as the President was in his interview with the public broadcaster, because no one is suggesting that BIG should be a substitute for other interventions made by government to reduce the burdens faced by the poor. The challenge is to manage the distributive dimension of economic growth on a platform of growth targets above 6% on a sustainable basis.
As for the link between economic growth and our skills base, we must address the crisis of underperformance in our schooling system because it poses the greatest threat to our dream of a better life for all.
Otherwise, if we must limit ourselves to the four corners of the President's speech - there is very little to criticise.