Friday, 06 February 2015 00:00

Change Must Define Zuma’s State Of The Nation Address

“Change”, as James Kouzes and Barry Posner remind us, “is the province of leaders.” Leaders across different domains – politics, corporate, and civic spheres – are always faced with the challenge of managing change or creating one. If leaders are not preoccupied with change, they should not be in a leading role.


Political leaders, especially, have an even greater responsibility, as they have to create a framework within which desirable change can be brought about within the limits of their terms of office, while also reconciling competing interests. They are expected to set a higher bar for shared aspirations of society, and facilitate their fulfillment. Sadly, expectations are very low on what government can achieve under President Jacob Zuma’s leadership.


There are many people who are looking forward to Zuma’s state of the nation address in the coming week not for its inspiration, but for the reason that it may just offer a comic relief in a country that is knotted by all manner of ills, from an underperforming economy, to unreliable energy, and to deepening social tensions. What is supposed to be an important event in South Africa’s political calendar has been reduced into a soap opera casting Zuma and Julius Malema, with their hordes of Members of Parliament in supportive role to amplify the din. Even Eskom has promised to keep the lights on for the show.


Some are taking solace in the false idea that Zuma’s term will be cut short like that of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who was guillotined by his party before his term of office came to an end. Such expectations will not be fulfilled for the simple reason that the balance of factions within the ANC are weighted in Zuma’s favour. There are no courageous champions of change within the ANC that are prepared to risk their political life by calling for Zuma’s head.


Many South Africans no longer believe government’s messages, as they have seen states of the nation speeches fall flat in the past. The real challenge Zuma faces in delivering his state of the nation address is that of credibility. There is broken trust between the state and society. Business leaders too have lost confidence in the ability of government to grasp the gravity of our economic and social challenges.


Policy uncertainty and indecisiveness on the part of Zuma – he has taken longer to sign key pieces of legislation affecting certain sectors of the economy – has a dampening effect on the long-term investment commitments by big business. In the past, whenever government leaders would address difficult challenges in the economy, they would place the blame on external factors. In the case of economic underperformance, the effects of the global financial crisis are cited as a sole scapegoat.


In other areas, such as the energy crunch, the president would point a finger at apartheid as the main culprit. There are plenty other examples where there is no willingness on the part of government to confront the uncomfortable truths about our economy and its ugly social structure. Leadership failures and poor execution are at the heart of our difficulties.


On the social level, since Zuma ascended to power, there has been a surge in service delivery protests, growing from 162 in 2008 to 470 in 2012. According to researchers at the Social Change Unit of the University of Johannesburg, these protests have been expressions of rebellion by the poor against an unresponsive state. It is not just the middle class that feels short-changed. Crucially the poor also feel let down by the state.

It will be no use for Zuma to conceal these realities by recounting obscure achievements. Most people already know that all is not well, but they wonder if those at the top are prepared to admit as much. In his state of the nation address, Zuma should do away with the ritual of reading bland government reports, but elevate his leadership platform and engage in a heart-to-heart conversation with the nation.


Any leader that hopes to provide inspiration and enlist society to shared aspirations, has to be candid about mistakes and failures. Rebuilding the credibility of government must be first priority. Purposeful actions that inspire confidence should then follow. Zuma has four years at the helm, and should not lose this opportunity to redefine his legacy. His speech should therefore be framed around change, especially, how his government will tackle the major challenges that confront us.


This article was first published in the Business Day, 6 February 2015