Let's Think

State of the Nation – what nation?

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On Thursday 12 February South Africans will be listening to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), if allowed by Eskom and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). 

Thank goodness it is not on the next day, since it would then have been on a Friday the 13th and as it is the country has more than enough bad luck at the moment.

Fact is, the term “state of the nation” for the address is probably a misnomer at this point. Not much of the 1994 dream of building a “rainbow nation” seems to have survived since its birth 21 years ago.

Only on three occasions has South Africa’s diverse population looked and acted as if it was more than just a country – but a nation united in its goals to develop the best possible future for generations to come, in building a shared heritage and creating an inclusive sense of belonging for all citizens.

The feeling of ‘nationhood’ started off on a high in 1994. Then it was reinforced by the euphoria of winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and showed some flickers when the country hosted the Football World Cup tournament in 2010.

But nation-building requires much more than a few single events to come to fruition. It is a lasting process calling for a sustained effort by especially the leadership cadres in all walks of life throughout the national household.

Since that last “event” of 2010 nation-building has been going one way – and that is south. The country has become the battleground of a continuously fracturing array of ideological, ethnic/racial political power and economic/material interest groups. In the process the country itself increasingly looks as though it is speeding towards ‘failed-state’ status.

Few things illustrate this fact better than the state-owned electricity utility, Escom, that is threatening to bring the country’s economy to a standstill. And there are increasing signs that the country’s water supply infrastructure is fast heading the same way.

Elsewhere we bemoan the fact that the race card has made a full reappearance in the country and is dominating the political and social discourse. To what extent we have become obsessed with race is illustrated by the front page lead of a Cape Town daily last week describing an assault case in the city simply as a “racial assault”.

The same goes for the response of some political leaders to the renaming of a street after former president F. W. de Klerk, who played a key role in delivering the birth of the “rainbow nation” in 1994.

Tunisia moment

Even a cursory scanning of some the dominating news events over the last ten to fourteen days tells one that former president Thabo Mbeki’s brother, Moeletsi, probably overestimated the timeframe in his prediction that South Africa’s “Tunisia moment” will come in 2018.

Just consider the following headline news items.

·         EFF members allegedly setting fire to municipal buildings during a protest in Mohlakeng, outside Randfontein, Gauteng, while they claim ANC members are actually responsible;

·         According to a government-linked ‘Service delivery barometer’ there were about 100 protests in 2007, going up to about 250 in 2012. Last week the provincial Commissioner of Police in Gauteng said in that province alone over only the past three months “… the police had dealt with 569 protests in the past three months, of which 122 were violent…” All the signs are there that the SAPS is overwhelmed by the situation and that the relationship between the police and communities is disintegrating;

·         Small wonder that a recent survey found that a third of adults in South Africa fear the police, three in 10 adults fear going to a police station to report a crime and 44% felt there was no point in reporting crime to the police;

·         Even more ominously, last week a group of people armed with pangas and knobkieries were blockading the Malamulele-Thohoyandou road in Limpopo, interrogating motorists and if they happened to speak the Xitsonga language, were turned back to Malamulele. Likewise, in scenes reminding of the day of civil war in Mozambique, in the Vaal Triangle residents blocked roads with burning tyres, stones and trees between Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging; and

·         In a situation that echoes the protest scenes of the final days of apartheid, last month, four people were killed in Mothotlung, in the North West Province during protests over water supplies. A mineworker and a photographer were allegedly shot dead by police and another died after allegedly jumping from a moving police vehicle while trying to escape from custody;

The list goes on and on, and in the meantime the latest official statistics show that the cost of food keeps rising as do the levels of poverty in the country, with some 12 million people living in extreme poverty. At the same time another survey has shown that South Africa's private sector has shrunk in January.

And a top economist, at the release of the latest Business Debit Index (BDI), said that South African investors had put a halt to investing in new businesses, claiming industrial action was behind the lack of confidence in the country by the country’s business space.

Escom also offers an opportunity

While the situation surrounding Escom has heaped another heavy burden of pessimism on business confidence in the country, it - like all challenges -  also represents opportunities.

One of those opportunities is to persuade all South Africans that they collectively face a major crisis requiring them to respond as a united nation. There was something of that in a statement last week by the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in which it listed wide-ranging proposals to the government-led electricity “war room”.

For the proposals to succeed there needs to be a united national response to the crisis, from government, Escom, the business sector and organised labour. It is disappointing that the first trade union responses were from a purely narrow own-interest perspective.

Not to tackle the Escom problem as a united nation will be a waste of a crisis, which could help the country to become a nation again.


I think that to expect President Jacob Zuma to come up with a new vision and plan to kick-start nation-building again would only be to set yourself up for disappointment. He just does not have enough stature and political and moral capital left to pull off a turnaround.

 If we still are to find a slim chance to avoid that “Tunisia moment” Mbeki spoke about, he is not the ‘prince’ to pin our hope on. It is time for a whole league of true leaders from all walks of life to step forward and help save our nation from a threatening disaster.

by Piet Coetzer

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