AS PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma puts the finishing touches to his state of the nation address, to be delivered on Thursday night, he probably holds the most political power of anyone who has made this speech in at least the past eight years.
Zuma may therefore have the political space to announce more far-reaching decisions than in the past and to be more specific in his promises, particularly with a national election on the horizon.
The last time a sitting president was in such a powerful position when delivering the state of the nation address was probably Thabo Mbeki in the period before 2005.
In 2003, Mbeki had just been returned unopposed as leader of the African National Congress (ANC). But he chose to concentrate on the planned US invasion of Iraq and appeared to spend little time on domestic issues.
By 2005, his views on HIV came to dominate the address and later that year he “relieved Zuma of his duties” as deputy president.
A year later, this decision had dramatically swung part of the ANC away from Mbeki and divisions in the ruling party had become apparent. Mbeki was growing weaker politically and by 2008 had to deliver the state of the nation address just after losing the ANC presidency at Polokwane.
A year later, Kgalema Motlanthe had to give the address amid rumours that the ANC wanted to “downgrade” the event so that Zuma could deliver the “real” address after the 2009 elections.
When Zuma did speak, he had to take care to reassure the nation that it was in careful hands. However, by February 2010, his situation had deteriorated after he had to acknowledge publicly that he had fathered a “love child”. Rumours circulated that he would not last a full term.
A year later, Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League leader at the time, appeared to garner more media attention Mr Zuma, while last year’s address came with political attention already focused on the ANC’s Mangaung elective conference.
Now things appear to be very different. There is no party conference on the horizon and there is at least a full year before national elections. Within the ANC, Zuma does not appear to face a real rival, with the only possible exception being Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected as deputy ANC leader on the “Zuma slate” at Mangaung. There is also no strong critic within the party to take the place of Malema.
This could allow Zuma to speak with more authority and provide finality on some issues. Foremost among these is the youth wage subsidy, which could form part of measures the ANC hopes will “incentivise” the employment of young people. While Zuma will be criticised by the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party if he follows this path, he may believe that he will now survive their anger.
Meanwhile, Zuma has publicly said, many times, that “teachers must be in class, on time, teaching, for seven hours a day”. He could decide the time is right to push through measures to make this a reality.
At the same time, he may feel he has to announce measures to boost the ANC in next year’s polls — measures that may help him take on vested interests in the alliance.
However, Zuma may also consider his recent past and the promises he made that have not been kept. He has previously pledged large infrastructure projects and job creation. The infrastructure plan is moving slowly, while the stalled global economy appears to have damaged his job-creation plans.
He may therefore focus on promises that are demonstrably achievable ahead of the 2014 elections, while keeping an eye on the long term with the implementation of the National Development Plan.
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.