SONA 2017: What state? What nation?


File: President Jacob Zuma presents the State of the Nation Address (SoNA) to a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament (National Assembly and National Council of Provinces) on 11 February 2016 at 19h00.

The State of the Nation Address, thus capitalised, shortened to "Sona", and in these post-millennial days of miracle and wonder, even a hashtag, #SONA. But what is it really, beyond the ceremonial annual restart of Parliament in South Africa, and a speech given by the head of government who also happens to be the head of state, to the people who live in South Africa?

There are two hurdles to clear before proceeding. The first is the matter of nomenclature, what we call things, what words we use to describe things. The words "state" and "nation" ought to trigger several questions for vigilant, critically literate observers of the way we live now. The critically literate person living in the world today has much work to perform around politicians' words and their meanings, precisely to avoid having to digest the salty rocks of "alternative facts".

The multiple meanings of the word "state" cannot be avoided. In relation to Sona we are meant to understand that it is about the condition South Africa finds itself in. However, given the head of government and head of state has also invoked his administrative power to use over 400 soldiers to "maintain law and order" (more words which invite thinking about, analysis, and commentary, from every person who values another word often used in South Africa, "freedom"), another meaning comes to mind: the institutions, mechanisms, structures, and procedures by which people are governed in South Africa. That state (or State, for those who want to go via Germanic social science) has both a private, corporate face and a public, governmental face.

The second item, "nation", ought also to give us pause for thought.  Who is included in this term, who is excluded? With our history of what Bessie Head called "signs and divisions", and our more recent history of xenophobia in both its masked, bourgeois attitudinal form, and its more spectacular expression as violence directed at human beings, a certain healthy suspicion of this term seems advisable. After all, in the city which accounts for 16% of the country's GDP, the mayor is going out on raids which seem to conflate non-citizenship and criminality rather too easily, especially in the light of our execrable history of xenophobia.

In the title of the speech much is glossed over. That it derives from the "State of the Union" address given by the president of the United States of America speaks volumes about our post-colonial condition. That it really ought to be a report about the work of the government over the last year, and the condition the country finds itself in because of the successes and failures of that government, is forgotten.

But what are the questions about the condition of the country many may want answers to? What is it that many expect the president to talk about? The list is not comprehensive, but there are some items which may need to be spoken of, and to.

We are still in the middle of a severe drought and its consequences: how successful (or not) were the interventions President Jacob Zuma announced at Sona 2016?  What have scientists told us about the drought, its relation to longer-term climate change, and the complications of water security in an already water-scarce land, and how, if at all, has this impacted on government's plans for the year ahead in mitigating the effects of the drought? How will the presence of an invader species pest, the armyworm, affect food security further, given that maize is a staple for many in this country?

What are the economic growth prospects, including the larger issues of business investment and the relationship with markets regionally and abroad, for the next 12 months? What, more importantly, has been the impact of government’s measures to increase employment and job security, as well as the dignity of labour, over the last 12 months? Here, of course, one wants to hear more than just the numbers of jobs or job opportunities created in specific sectors; one wants the global figures which reveal whether there was a net growth, or a net loss, and what the enabling and risk factors are for job gains and losses, and in which specific sectors, over the next year.

The questions around education, its costs and quality, its transformation to help younger people prepare for the challenges they will face as a direct consequence of decisions their elders made, also have to be addressed. And not just with words, with anodyne formulae too oft repeated. The crisis at tertiary and vocational education colleges has been overshadowed by the public’s focus on the ongoing crisis in universities, but given the importance of those colleges for the present and the future needs of the country, it may be crucial to begin to address them with specific measures which ordinary South Africans can see and feel in their everyday lives. On universities themselves, presumably, in this lull in protests, and with the presidential fees commission due to report back only mid-year (much later than first projected), the focus will be on NSFAS (which is also a story of mixed fortunes), rather than on the substantial overhaul of the system which may be required.

94. And counting. South Africans will probably be listening very keenly to hear what the president of the Republic of South Africa has to say about the unlawful deaths of mentally ill patients in state care. And while we must guard against turning the suffering of those who died and the surviving families into a political football – all of us must caution ourselves against this, politicians and the rest of us – we must also recognise in this tragedy a reflection of ourselves, of the society we live in. What does it say about us that this happened 23 years into "freedom"?

How the Sona addresses the questions of difference and their consequence in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa will also be revealing. Those "signs and divisions" of old and of now, too often reduced merely to the use of "race" and the blight of racism, must be spoken of, and spoken to. But in this femicidal country, the substantial material inequality in women’s experience of "freedom" cannot merely be addressed by remarks about the need for a "woman president". We ought to do better than that. After all, some of us just observed another anniversary of the horrific violation and death of that young woman whose name will always be too precious to slip casually into a sentence about political failure. And in this most unequal society, we dare not forget about class, given that our "wars on poverty" look more like wars on poor people.

In Sona 2017 we are presumably to hear government’s account of its work over the last year so that we in whose name it governs may hold it to account. But to what extent is accountability possible in contemporary South Africa? The auditor-general in November indicated that his office is powerless to sanction those government departments that refuse to comply, year-on-year, with processes and procedures meant to curb wasteful and fruitless expenditure. Other state agencies meant to ensure accountability have also raised concerns about capacity and funding. The minister of finance's "Budget Speech" will come later in the month, but what is government doing with our money?

The number of appeals by government departments and officials against judicial findings against them ought to concern South Africans whose tax money pays for this litigious approach by elected and appointed officials. The impunity with which some of this defiance proceeds ought to alarm us: the conduct of the Department of Social Development on the court judgment on social grant administration is beyond frightening. And then there is the rolling horror show of the public broadcaster and the Ministry of Communications. One does not even have to mention the glow-in-the-dark nuclear deal which looms as a debt burden for our children's children's children, if such there are, given things happening elsewhere.

Much has shifted for the better in South Africa over the 23 years since the formal abolition of apartheid as legislation and government policy in 1994. However, Sona ought to reflect specifically on the last 12 months and account for government’s successes and failures, and on the latter, the president ought to outline credible reasons for those failures, and the measures his government will pursue not only to address them but to avoid their repetition in Sona 2018.