President Jacob Zuma delivers his state of the nation address in Parliament, Cape Town, on Thursday. Picture: PARLIAMENT OF RSA
President Jacob Zuma delivers his state of the nation address in Parliament, Cape Town, on Thursday. Picture: PARLIAMENT OF RSA

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma on Thursday night gave the National Development Plan pride of place in his state of the nation speech — he mentioned it before anything else — but failed to endorse any of its specific proposals. Champions of the plan are keenly watching to see "what is in and what’s out" from among the wide-ranging proposals.

While it is one matter to endorse the plan and say it provides the road map out of poverty, inequality and unemployment, it will be quite another to implement many of its proposals.

Much of the plan makes it clear that there are serious trade-offs to be made among South Africa’s social partners if progress is to be made.

This is why even the slightest of signals from Mr Zuma on where his priorities might lie would have been helpful. For instance, two big problems stand at the top of the plan, without which all will be lost: too few people work; and the standard of education for most black pupils is of a poor quality.

Of these, education is the area in which the right actions by the government could make an enormous difference. On recent occasions at the African National Congress conference and after its lekgotla, for instance, Mr Zuma and his colleagues have been bolder, saying school inspectors should be brought back and education should be declared an essential service, which would make it impossible for teachers to strike.

Here Mr Zuma backed off: he said he had never intended that teachers should lose their right to strike, but just that they should take their jobs more seriously.

His approach was to be conciliatory rather than to assert a direction for the government. His words, "no single force acting individually can achieve the objectives we have set for ourselves", promised another bout of social dialogue. But the promise of social dialogue has become tired. In fact, the institutional form that social dialogue has taken in the National Economic Development and Labour Council in which entrenched interests slog it out for unsatisfactory compromises that often do not further the general good, has arguably begun to hold South Africa back rather than take it forward.

Mr Zuma expressed commitment to the plan in only the broadest strokes, doing little more than list the areas it seeks to cover, and expressing regret that lower than hoped for growth had of late derailed the government’s plans in these areas.

Perhaps most helpful was the recognition in the speech that to create the 11-million jobs the plan hopes for by 2030, "the economy would need to grow threefold". This is a more helpful way of expressing the problem: this means that each business must grow by three or the number of businesses must triple. Seeing the challenge this way could help change government thinking: business needs to be helped to grow and that is an overwhelming priority.

Mr Zuma, who in the past six months has held two meetings with business to discuss socioeconomic problems, may be starting to move towards the solution. But he will have to put his post-Mangaung assertiveness to better effect.