President Jacob Zuma enters Parliament to deliver his state of the nation address in Cape Town on Thursday. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma enters Parliament to deliver his state of the nation address in Cape Town on Thursday. Picture: GCIS

A MIXED bag. That is probably the best way to describe President Jacob Zuma’s performance in his state of the nation address in Parliament on Thursday night.

While the speech was not profoundly informative, in line with what has become a tradition for such events, it was an attempt to give an account of the achievements of the past year.

However, it did not provide the spark that could ignite optimism and excitement ahead of next year’s national elections.

Ahead of the speech, Mr Zuma was expected to lay down the law on key areas to fight unemployment and poverty. He was expected to explain how the National Development Plan would be implemented.

He was also expected to flesh out a scheme to create jobs for the youth. But those who expected clear direction on these would have been left disappointed on Thursday night, as Mr Zuma provided no new details.

"Last May, I asked constituencies at Nedlac (the National Economic Development and Labour Council) to discuss youth employment incentives," he said. "I am pleased that discussions have been concluded and that agreement has been reached on key principles. The parties will sign the accord later this month."

This suggested the planned youth wage scheme, opposed vociferously by the unions, could still be expected to be a political football this year, as it was last year.

The absence of details on new initiatives reveals what is not only a Zuma administration headache but the democratic era stumbling across the realities of governing against a background of expectation to deliver on bold promises made to the electorate in past elections.

Thursday night’s evasive communication on the youth scheme was similar to how Mr Zuma failed to take forward the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) plan to change society’s attitudes in order to improve the quality of education.

The ANC last month announced plans to make education an essential service, but quickly backtracked saying there was no plan to outlaw teachers’ strikes.

Mr Zuma stuck to the party’s evasive line on this topic. He said: "By saying education is an essential service we are not taking away the constitutional rights of teachers as workers such as the right to strike.

"It means we want the education sector and society as a whole to take education more seriously than is happening currently."

This is his second-last state of the nation address ahead of the general elections, expected in spring or winter next year.

It came in the wake of a good political season for Mr Zuma, who was endorsed by an overwhelming victory at the ANC’s Mangaung elections in December.

His re-election guarantees him a second term, in the likely event that the ANC wins next year’s election.

Considering South Africa’s lack of competitive national elections, to the extent that the winner of next year’s election is predictable, the ANC’s leadership elections have become the most important factor.

The Mangaung victory put Mr Zuma in a comfortable position to lead his government.

However, the ANC needs its government to perform better, nonetheless, to avoid a reduction of its electoral support.

It got just under the crucial two-thirds mark in the 2009 elections.

Key policy broad strokes — like his bold and clear communication that the nationalisation debate is dead — will earn Mr Zuma a lot of points in the eyes of investors, who were uncertain as the calls for the state to take over mines raged in the past three years.