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More than one South African commentator has sniggered about the unfortunate timing of this year’s State of the Nation address, Valentine’s Day.
One opposition MP has even suggested on the record that this year’s State of the Nation address was strategically scheduled to prevent President Jacob Zuma from choosing with which of his five wives he’ll be spending the amorous day.
It has become something of a national sport to mock Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle. And rarely does Zuma appear at a state function with one or another of his wives without someone glibly commenting about his choice of companion.
Zuma has failed to command the respect afforded to his predecessor Thabo Mbeki or the reverence offered to Nelson Mandela.
Even after winning a second term as president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Africa’s oldest liberation movement, Zuma is still dogged by his narrow escape from corruption charges, an acquittal on rape charges and his choice of polygamy.
Recent revelations of a security upgrade costing taxpayers in excess of 200 million rands ($22.6 million) at his personal home in the village of Nkandla has done little to repair his image.
Zuma, his staff and loyalists within the ANC claim the president is not getting the respect he deserves. They say he is the target of a malicious smear campaign fraught with racial undertones; and sometimes they are right.
But more often, it is Zuma himself who has failed in his presidency to be the leader the country needs.
At a time that South Africa has been hurtling precariously from one crisis to the next, he has failed to exhibit decisive leadership that could have diverted attention away from his personal history.
Losing faith in the leadership
When he gives his address today, Zuma will be facing a nation with little faith in its elected leadership.A survey conducted by global market research company Ipsos revealed that there has been a decline in public perception of the government’s performance.
Conducted between October and December 2012, the survey reveals that 52 per cent of respondents believed the government was performing well. In May 2012, that figure stood at 61 per cent.
Following the Marikana miners’ strike in which police killed 47 protesters and injured dozens, South Africans are seeking a government that will address the uglier challenges and difficulties that face post-Apartheid South Africa
Most South Africans will be listening to Zuma’s address with the expectation that he indicates government is ready and willing to fix the crises ailing the country.
But who will Zuma really be talking to?
Investors over ordinary citizens?
Patrick Bond, the director of the University of Kwazulu Natal’s Centre for Civil Society, believes Zuma will choose to allay the fears of investors instead of speaking directly to the concerns of ordinary South Africans.
“Zuma won’t mainly speak to the more than one in three women who suffer sexual attacks [in South Africa], will he? Nor will his speech convince the desperate workers and poor people in Western Cape farms, retrenchment-ridden North West province mining belt and shack settlements in our wretched industrial wastelands, even if these South Africans have already reached breakpoint just a month into the new year,” says Bond.
Bond believes Zuma’s State of the Nation address will be tailored toward the ratings agencies who last year downgraded the country’s credit rating.
“Zuma’s charm will be directed towards financiers, whose nervousness about South Africa led Moody’s last September to downgrade our national credit rating,” Bond says.
“The revision reflects Moody’s view of the SA authorities’ reduced capacity to handle the current political and economic situation.”
And yet, in the run-up to the State of the Nation Address, Zuma’s office has certainly made a show at least of involving ordinary South Africans in the president’s preparations for the speech.
His office launched a first-ever community and stakeholder outreach programme designed to receive input from South Africans on critical issues facing the country. He visited a vocational college in Pretoria, while his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, visited farmers and farmworkers in Paarl, in the Western Cape, on Tuesday.
This interaction with grassroots communities, staged for the State of the Nation as it is, is not characteristic of Zuma’s administration. During his presidency, South Africa has become the protest capital of the world. Almost daily, disgruntled communities across the country take to the streets to protest against the failures of local government and the parlous state of service delivery in the poorest areas of the country.
The street action stems from a frustration with the channels available for engagement with government. People feel cut off from the structures governing their lives and when that disconnectedness is made apparent, violence has become a means of communication.
If we define democracy as the active participation of people, as citizens, in politics and civil life, then the violence that accompanies these protests points to a failure of democracy in South Africa.
Zuma will inform South Africans on the state of their nation on Thursday but to many his pronouncements have become the cold calculations of men and women in plush offices far removed from the people they were meant to represent.