SONA: Pay back the money and move on!

Douglas Gibson writes on how President Zuma could confound his critics and take the wind out of their sails

President Jacob Zuma could confound his critics and take the wind out of their sails by paying back the money. He could made the announcement just before the start of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Friday that he was honouring the finding of the Public Protector by paying back a reasonable amount of the private benefit he received from the Nkandla expenditure.

No-one of consequence has said he should pay back the whole R240 million.  The Public Protector did not even suggest that.  She talked about a "reasonable amount."  That would be whatever amount could reasonably be said to constitute the improvement in value of his private property apart from the security expenditure. One thinks of the tuck-shop, the cattle kraal, the amphitheatre and the swimming pool.  There may be others.

At one stage we were told that the amount would be determined by the minister of Police who would calculate the difference between what the security improvements demanded and the benefit to the owner. This aspect has gone cold, to the detriment of the public, of parliament, and of the reputation of the president.  For too long Nkandla has festered away and too much time has been spent on dodging the issue instead of tackling it head-on and getting rid of it.

Surely it is time the minister was asked to come up with a figure? Perhaps R20 million would be enough.  The president might be embarrassed about paying such a large amount but the fact is that he has in Nkandla a hugely valuable asset that will also appreciate in value with time and that asset was built up at the expense of the taxpayers of South Africa.

President Zuma has many wealthy friends and a large family, the latter being in line to inherit Nkandla one day.  Surely if they care about the president's political legacy the obvious thing to do would be to organise a fund-raiser aimed at collecting R20 million and seeing to it that many of the 2,500 people who attended the recent ANC birthday "bash" in Cape Town are invited to a gala occasion where they will be asked to contribute to the fund.

In one evening the money could be raised and the whole country would heave a sigh of relief at being able to move on.

The question is:  "Move on with what?"  The answer for the State of the Nation Address should be:  "The economy, stupid."

Bill Clinton's famous campaign question has never been more apt than in South Africa in 2015.

The president could tell the country that 2015 is the year of the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP).  That plan is not perfect but it enjoys widespread support from government and opposition, business, and most importantly, from the voters, who endorsed it at the 2014 General Election when it formed part of the ANC (and to a large extent, the DA)  election platform.

President Zuma could say that all the actions and programmes of the government and all legislation presented to parliament for approval will be measured by him and the cabinet to determine whether they promote and advance the NDP or whether they retard its implementation.  Those initiatives that do not measure up will be abandoned or refashioned to meet NDP expectations.

The president might feel it possible to say that the government does not pretend to have all the answers in bringing about the economic revival the country needs.  In his SONA speech he might choose to ignore some of the criticisms Mr Johann Rupert levelled at the government in his speech on Tuesday 3 April, but the president would do himself great credit if he were to say that he welcomes all approaches to work with him on the economy and that he particularly welcomed Mr Rupert's statement that business and civil society must work together with government to help grow the economy.

For too long there has been a lamentable distance between government and business and President Zuma could announce that he aims to bridge that, where possible, this year.  He would need to add that he will give attention to the position of the trade unions.  Their members form an important part of his government's support base and the relationship between business and the unions has not improved over the years.  2015 could be the year that a new tri-partite dialogue between government, business and labour commences, aimed at moving the economy forward.

President Zuma might say that the vast inequalities that exist in our country are unacceptable and a matter of concern to himself and the government.  He might add that the biggest inequality is between those who have work and those who do not. The best way to reduce the inequalities is to educate our children to play a part in a world very different from the one in which their parents and grandparents lived.  Strong backs and a willingness to work are not enough: one must have skills that are marketable because otherwise one is condemned to being unemployed forever and living on granny's pension or other government handouts.  Those matters that stand in the way of improving our education system and that prevent our children from enjoying their birthright need to be removed.  Even if this cannot happen overnight, the president could state that an improvement in our educational achievements at all levels is a non-negotiable.

The president should say that growth in the economy will be the lodestar of the government this year.  Anything that militates against a growing economy must be jettisoned with a laser-like determination.

If President Zuma will rid himself of the Nkandla albatross and say some of these things at SONA, he might be surprised at the favourable response his speech gets from South Africa.

Douglas Gibson is a former DA chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand, PDR Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar

This article first appeared in The Star.

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