Zuma's speech: the story of a country that's fallen for the 'politics of the belly'

SOUTH AFRICA
President Jacob Zuma during his 2017 state of the nation address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. Reuters/Sumaya Hisham

South Africans have yet again been treated to a grotesque bastardisation of the idea of a state of the nation address.

In its proper sense, a state of the nation address ought to be a signpost down the road of history. By history we mean the serious business of moulding society.

Leaders who are in the business of shaping society begin by articulating a clear vision of the future into which they wish to take their societies.

In this sense, a state of the nation address offers the opportunity to assess the distance travelled from the starting point to a visualised destination.

Such a down-the-road assessment must do two things: gauge the national mood honestly as an expression of the people’s commitment to the direction their country is taking, and lay out a practical programme of action to inspire the nation towards a better future.

It is not the spectacle of white shirts – parliamentary security – wrestling with red overalls – worn by the Economic Freedom Fighters – that rendered Jacob Zuma’s 2017 state of the nation address grotesque. Nor is it the surrealism of Zuma’s female ministers hurling insults in parliament that were being broadcast on national television. It is its historical meaninglessness, its dishonesty, and its deceptive big-bangism.

Zuma’s empty speeches

His speeches are historically meaningless in that none have been a milestone of any professed historical mission. Unlike other presidential hopefuls in the civilised world, Zuma did not climb to the highest office on the back of a grand promise – to make South Africa great again, for example.

Zuma rode to South Africa’s seat of power, the Union Buildings, on a bandwagon of victimhood, dancing and singing songs that glorify the machine gun.

What he would do when he reached the seat of power remained a vague idea whose fragments were scattered in the politically sozzled heads of all manner of his fellow joyriders.

It is for this reason that, for the past eight years of Zuma’s reign, it is hard to tell what exactly have his successive state of the nation addresses have been about. We have forgotten them so quickly because they are not part of any identifiable historical mission. They all fell into an ahistorical vacuum.

When Zuma goes, future generations will struggle to find a telos (purpose or goal) associated with his tenure as president of South Africa. The best they will probably find are traces of kleptocratic proclivities.

The dishonesty of this year’s state of the nation address is conspicuous by its nakedness. Towards the end of last year Statistics South Africa reported that unemployment in South Africa had risen to 27% based on the narrow definition which excludes discouraged work seekers. This significant piece of negative information was deliberately omitted from Zuma’s address.

The idea was to paint a rosy picture that fits into the propaganda of “moving South Africa forward”. It is this mentality that made Zuma make the projected lacklustre economic growth of 1.3% sound like progress – even though last year he told us his government aimed to register an annual growth rate of 5% by 2019. A pipe dream indeed!

An honest account of the state of the nation

For a state of the nation address, honesty ought to be expressed through a truthful representation of the actual conditions and feelings of the people. The true picture of South Africa right now, which Zuma used his speech to conceal, is that of a depressed society under a directionless government that is mired in endless scandals, in a context of rising unemployment and hopelessness among the young and old.

South Africans are living through a period of profound social confusion. The rich and the poor are united by their fear of the future under a menacing and out-of-touch leadership. Only those who benefit from Zuma’s patronage network feign optimism. These are the scoundrels who have been trying very hard to divert the nation’s attention from government corruption to the bogyman called “white monopoly capital.”

Zuma’s latest state of the nation address cannot inspire South Africans due to its essentially deceptive big-bang logic. Its crux is that what could not be done in eight years can be done in Zuma’s remaining two years.

While South Africans are not hearing the phrase “radical socio-economic transformation” for the first time, the suddenness of its promises gives them a window into the head of a president who harbours a fundamental disrespect for the intelligence of the people he leads. He seems to take South Africans for a bunch of gullible ignoramuses who swallow every lie that drops from above.

Platitudes about the need to redistribute land to black people, or for blacks to have a fair share of the economy, have peppered almost every state of the nation address since Zuma took over. But for some weird reason he, although left with only two years in office, expects South Africans to believe that his rosy promises will fall on black people like a big-bang bolt from the blue sky.

While the few already empowered elites of the Black Business Council seem set to get a good cut from the announced 30% subcontracting of government’s mega infrastructure projects, there is no pretence in Zuma’s speech that the ANC’s so-called “masses of our people” will get a dignified share – beyond temporary, body-destroying hard labour.

When the gloss of radicalism that covers Zuma’s 2017 state of the nation address has been scratched, South Africans find themselves confronted with the roughness of a president who has lost the plot, a morally hollow man who lies at the centre of the country’s parliamentary chaos.

It is the sad story of an African country whose promising start has been shuttered by what political scientists call “the politics of the belly.”

The Conversation

Prince Mashele does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.