Will this year’s SONA be different?

Daniel Silke says in a time of broader ANC disarray the party is likely to err on the side of populism

SONA, the Budget & Succession

Let’s face it – the bar for State of the Nation address (SONA) over the last few years has been set pretty low. Since the advent of the EFF, the event itself has largely been overshadowed by protest action leading to a distraction from the substance of the speech. And, for those intent on looking for great content, there has been little that stands out.

Will this year’s SONA be any different? It seems unlikely. President Zuma delivers the 2017 address in a weakened state after his own – and his party’s – dismal year in 2016. Factions abound, the veterans bad-mouth him at every opportunity and the succession race has begun in earnest providing an internal ANC-induced distraction from policy-making and implementation.

In particular, assuming new ANC leadership by the end of the year, this is President Zuma’s last SONA to carve out any lasting legacy for himself – at least a legacy by which he might be remembered more favourably. But his hands are tied for all these reasons.

And there’s even more – this SONA is presented amidst an ailing economy that needs clear policy reform rather than further regulatory interference and bureaucratic layers of administrative burden.

Indeed, with the SONA and the Budget so close on the National Assembly calendar – and with politics and economics now intricately linked, SONA is no longer a free and unfettered ride for the President. Bad policy decisions have economic consequences – and the inability of the ANC to deliver here is likely to be felt two weeks from now when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan threatens to raise taxes to offset economic decline.

So for Jacob Zuma, this SONA might be more about treading water than really delivering anything that excites. SONA’s generally review the efforts by government to improve living conditions and this year’s will likely sugar-coat any progress over the last year.

The speech is also designed to set some sort of policy agenda for the coming year. For the ANC, setting coherent policy is now almost impossible given the divisions and succession battles. Should the party show some cohesion around a new leader and eventual President of the country, this might resurface, but for now, don’t expect major policy initiatives.

But there is one area in which the President can set the tone for the year. And to a degree, he already has. The buzz-word of ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ has already gained prominence in ANC circles. In a time of broader ANC disarray, the party is much more likely to err on the side of populism – at least from the office of Jacob Zuma – than any shift to the moderate centre.

SONA can therefore be expected to expand on more transformative efforts of government to correct inequality and structural imbalances of ownership within the economy. One can therefore expect that the speech will be peppered with issues relating to the minimum wage (although still unresolved at the time of writing), land re-distribution, banking regulations and ownership of the broader economy and very specifically, the pending Mining Charter than remains contentious.

From a political perspective within his own party, these issues are the safest. They confer on Zuma a sense of being the ‘people’s President – a title which might resonate from that of Donald Trump’s ascent to power. In a world in which populism is becoming more prolific, this might be Zuma’s opportunity to make some remarks more pointedly than in the past.

Zuma’s remaining resonance is not with urban dweller who have begun a long and fraught journey away from the ANC. It’s his more rural constituency and the deprived that still hold him dear. And his message therefore is more likely to pacify them than the boardrooms of Sandton.

In addition, Zuma might want to emphasise this side of the economic equation as a challenge to his successor. By talking up the ‘radical’ wave of policy initiatives, any successor may be forced onto the defensive as to where he or she stands of such issues. It’s a way for Zuma to steer the ANC in a particular direction even if he is no longer at the helm – and it throws down the gauntlet to the contenders for power to try and ‘out-populist’ each other.

Still, there are issues that will resonate with a greater audience. The President will talk about efforts to improve education, infrastructure, address the water crisis in parts of the country, the stabilisation of the state-owned-enterprises and perhaps, the necessity for nuclear power.

Clearly then, whilst Zuma can talk up the more ‘radical’ side of the policy equation, he cannot do the same for promoting market-friendly endeavours. This is where his rhetoric becomes much more problematic. It’s relatively easy to talk about the re-distributive side of the economy – but in terms of creating the wealth necessary to raise living standards (and also continue re-distributing) the policy options are much narrower.

Zuma really cannot address any issue relating to the partial sale of any SOE – or anything substantial on labour reform. Whilst he will probably not refer to ‘White monopoly capital’ in his address, he is hardly likely to show any sympathy to that sector.

So the SONA this year might be relatively dour. But that’s no surprise. Ultimately, the speech should be read not on its own – but together with the Budget on the 22nd of the month. Assuming Praving Gordhan is there to keep a steady hand on the fiscus, it is his more credible tones that are likely to have a real impact on the state of the country for the year to come.

The divergence in tone, sentiment and also policy attitudes between the Presidency and Treasury these last two years has virtually afforded South Africans the choice of almost two SONA’s. President Zuma’s laborious performances or Gordhan’s more sober and realistic assessment of where we are at.

It may just be that over the next few weeks, we will once again witness this phenomenon – and again the realisation that there are two realities in the ANC. The narrow populist of Jacob Zuma and Treasury who is forced to mop up the mess. This time though, succession and the dynamics that brings to the table will loom large as well.

Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website at www.danielsilke.com.