Shtate of the nashhhion…

10th February, 2011

The President’s State of the Nation Speech marks the opening of the Parliamentary year and the most important action plan for the government’s year. Gwede Mantashe, ANC Secretary-General, was prescient in his prediction that this year would be about: “Jobs, jobs, jobs…” That was certainly the lynchpin of the President’s speech, and it was a different State of the Nation, for a number of reasons:

JZ didn’t just read the speech, in dreary monotone and without a shred of emphasis or nuance (like he did in 2010). Instead, his style was more candid, more friendly and more constructive. Communication is the most powerful tool a politician can wield, and JZ hasn’t used his informal, affable personality to his advantage much in this address before.

The President made an effort to highlight that he is connected – by mentioning his imbizos, Twitter and Facebook. One cannot help thinking that, in the light of what happened in Egypt, the world’s leaders will all be doing more of this from now on. The old ways are not working as well as they used to – the old media are not as personal, immediate and relevant as the new sources are.

As much as the focus was about jobs, the speech was made with a forked tongue when it came to the economy – JZ has to straddle the widening gap between the demands of the too-powerful unions and the real creators of jobs – private sector businesses. He will try to hold this middle ground by promising both parties certain things – for reasons of political expediency – but his government must admit that they have no real policy to comprehensively deal with this complex issue. The four labour bills being proposed are in direct conflict with a slowing economy seeking to create jobs. I suppose if the unions helped elect you, you’d feel you needed to heed their demands too.

Finally, the President said the following: “Since we are building a developmental and not a welfare state, the social grants will be linked to economic activity and community development, to enable short-term beneficiaries to become self-supporting in the long run.” This is of enormous significance. For many left-leaning members of the ANC this line will be a bitter pill to swallow. It is brave of the President to put plainly that the system of social grants is not sustainable. He also admitted the economy is slowing, admitted that we lost a million jobs last year and admitted that local government is not working in many municipalities. The first step towards recovery is admitting the problem. Thabo Mbeki never did this.

For many, the speech addressed concerns about education, mining, infrastructural development and the municipal elections. I liked the fact that he singled out Maths and Science in schools, emphasized that the deficit will be decreased and pledged support to small businesses.

These speeches are rehearsed, reworked and crafted to be everything but controversial or surprising, so I very much doubt anyone will be sweating over much of the content.

We did it differently this year – with our State of the Nation drinking game on Twitter and Facebook. Silly and frivolous as this might sound, many more people will have watched the speech than ever before: Disengaged, disaffected young people who aren’t registering for elections and are not interested in politics because the politicians don’t talk to them may have heard just one sentence in the speech that sparked a political awareness. The seed has been sown and I am confident it will grow. Participatory democracy is on the ascendant. That’s you!

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