Up and down the gently sloping streets of central Johannesburg, street poles have become sacrificial flag bearers of South African politics. General elections are scheduled to take place on May 7 and, on cue, posters from the ruling ANC, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and newly formed Agang-SA compete for space, and votes, on the city’s sidewalks. The election may still be months away but it’s already colouring the pious protestations of politicians.
On Thursday evening, South African President Jacob Zuma will deliver the annual state of the nation address to parliament.
“It is a set piece which at a time when real South African politics happens in open play, and President Zuma has consistently proved unable to convert,” Nic Dawes, a former editor of the weekly Mail and Guardian says.
The state of the nation
The speech should be an opportunity for the president to inspire the country towards unlocking its potential for greatness.
The state of the nation speech is, however, still keenly anticipated.
“Through the speech, citizens, most importantly, get an idea of what the priorities of their government are, businesses get the idea of where the opportunities lie and foreign investors learn two things, where the incentives are and where the country is heading,” political analyst Ebrahim Fakir says.
Aubrey Matshiqi, a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, says Zuma’s speech must go beyond these official purposes and address the dip in morale in the country.
“The speech should be an opportunity for the president to inspire the country towards unlocking its potential for greatness,” Matshiqi says.
The country, however, is also in the throes of an economic and social crisis.
South Africa has been gripped by unrest in the mines since 2012, which have re-escalated again in the last month. And while mine bosses count their losses, protests against government in the country’s poorest areas have raged on for weeks.
There is an average of 32 protests a day in South Africa, many of which are violent.
The state of the nation address, as a vaunted message of government to the people, cannot ignore the pockets of protest that have erupted across the country since the beginning of the year.
“I think, this time, President Zuma will have to also address the protesters,” Fakir says.
While the protests are not a new development, it is the extent and ferocity with which these protests have been waged since the New Year that may impel Zuma to speak directly to protesters. Already, Zuma has decried the violence that has come to characterise some of these protests.
The South African Police Services have also emerged unable to effectively facilitate the right of South Africans to protest. Several protesters have been killed by police since the start of the year. And while the protests are expected to multiply as the election draws closer, how exactly Zuma addresses protesters and their grievances in his assessment of the state of the nation will be telling of a wider tolerance, or not, of dissent.
Matshiqi, however, says the lack of trust in government among the poor and working class, who are at the heart of these protests, cannot be ignored.
“Zuma needs to send a strong message, a message that inspires confidence, to the poor and working class,” he says.
The heckling of Zuma during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg in December proved a sobering articulation of the esteem in which Zuma is now held in some quarters. In many ways the president is ending his first term in office as he began it, with doubts raging over his ability as a leader.
“In the period leading up to his election in 2009, there was scepticism about whether Zuma can govern a modern state and a modern economy,” Matshiqi says.
“After he gave a confidence boosting inauguration speech and state of the nation address in 2009, people felt they needed to give him a chance. And to a large extent the five years since, have been a story of squandered opportunities on the part of the president.”
What we want to know is when and how government plans to get back to the basics - to take care of its people.
Matshiqi points out however that while both the president’s approval ratings and image has suffered through his term in office, criticism of President Zuma often discounts his achievements.
“We tend to forget that it under Zuma’s leadership that the National Development Plan [a long term vision for the country] came into a being. He can take credit also for changing direction in the state interventions into the treatment of HIV and AIDS, he can also take credit for the infrastructure development plan.”
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy. The statistics dispel any doubt that South Africa has indeed progressed in the last two decades – More than three million houses have been built for the poor, six million households have gained access to clean water, and electricity has been connected to nearly five million homes. The country’s extensive social grants system now reaches more than 15 million people, 10 million of whom are children.
And while these government statistics, are often regarded quizzically, the Institute of Race Relations says its research backs up these government statistics.
“The ANC and the government it leads deserves considerably more credit for improving the living standards of poor and black South Africans than it has received,” Frans Cronje, a researcher for the Institute said in a statement, responding to these government statistics.
There certainly is much to fete in the extent to which the country has developed, but the legend of the “new South Africa”, the happy story of Mandela’s rainbow nation continues to unravel.
Long time ANC supporters like Elizabeth Otitodun from Cape Town feel that it is the country’s most vulnerable that have been let down by the ANC.
“There’s been both an upside and a downside to the growth of the middle class, and Black Economic Empowerment and all of that, but I think the let-down is that ordinary people haven’t really experienced that on a larger scale,” she told local website South Africa Votes 2014 last weekend.
“Some have been able to make use of their opportunities, but most of the people in poorer communities have not been able to.”
Matshiqi believes that it is an erosion of the trust between the people and its government that is ultimately responsible for the growing disillusionment with the ANC.
This however is still a party that is assured of victory in the next election.
And others, despite difficult circumstances, continue to support the ANC, in part, as a thanksgiving for the changes the ANC’s policies has made in their lives.
“I’m voting the ANC. They make my life better because my children are going to school and getting a grant for school. I’m happy because I’ve been suffering. I’ve got plenty of suffering,” Lennox Sotho, a 56-year-old, a parking attendant said.
Still, opposition parties, charge the ANC with neglect for the very people who vote them into power.
“What we want to know is when and how government plans to get back to the basics – to take care of its people,” Bantu Holomisa, the leader of the United Democratic Movement told Al Jazeera.
Similarly, the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party in the country, describes the state of the nation as “bleak”.
“President Zuma needs to reassure South Africans on his leadership on combatting corruption which I believe he is not capable of doing,” Lindiwe Mazibuko, the parliamentary leader of the DA told Al Jazeera.
For Mazibuko, Zuma’s speech will be aimed at appeasing ANC constituencies, missing the real concerns driving South Africans to the street.
“I think he will try his best to make this as popular a state of the nation address as possible,” Mazibuko says.
Some political commentators agree.
“I suspect we’ll hear a lot about the infrastructure spend, government’s plans, how they are going to improve delivery, how they are going to curtail corruption, policy measures around combatting corruption and a fair bit of electioneering, no doubt,” political analyst, Fakir says.
The state of the South African nation, according to Zuma, will be broadcast on national television on Thursday night. The state of the nation, as it is lived in the experience of South Africa twenty years after Apartheid, will resound through the inequality in the shares in the spoils of democracy long after Zuma’s speech ends.