President Jacob Zuma listens to the state of the nation debate in Parliament this week. Opposition parties await his response on Thursday. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

GAZING into the political crystal ball is a hazardous exercise at the best of times. And even more so in SA, which faces a turbulent year both politically and economically.

President Jacob Zuma will be on the back foot after his poorly judged and disastrous appointment of MP Des van Rooyen as finance minister for a few days late last year. Opposition parties will be losing no time in climbing into the space that Mr Zuma has opened up to attack his credibility. Whether he manages to keep his grip on power, and in what manner, will be one of the burning political questions of 2016, particularly after the local government elections to be held within the first six months of the year.

The president is set to announce the political agenda of the African National Congress (ANC) on Friday in the party’s annual January 8 statement. The event will take place at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, the heart of the platinum belt and not far from the site of the fatal shooting of miners during the Marikana tragedy.

Traditionally the statement deals both with challenges facing the ruling party and how it intends to address them, as well as social problems such as unemployment, crime and a lack of services. Mr Zuma can be expected to address instability within the ranks of the ANC’s alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.

It is, however, in his State of the Nation address to a joint sitting of Parliament on Thursday, February 11, that Mr Zuma will outline government’s agenda for the forthcoming year and the policies and programmes that will be adopted. These will be based on decisions taken at the Cabinet lekgotla that usually takes place in mid-to late-January.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will no doubt ensure Zuma’s February 11 speech is a rowdy affair.

One can expect more on the nuclear procurement which Cabinet has approved, more on the belt-tightening required by government as it grapples with lower revenue, and more on the funding of university education and the fate of the sector education and training authorities.

More so than both policy statements, the national budget of new Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan later in February will provide an indication of the state of SA’s political economy and the power of the president relative to the Treasury.

Through providing details about how much the Treasury considers prudent to spend on nuclear power stations or on a presidential jet, the budget will point to the balance of forces within government between a profligate, open-purse president and a fiscally conservative Treasury.

The way Mr Gordhan deals with state-owned enterprises, particularly Mr Zuma’s coveted South African Airways, will also be signposts of the balance of power at work. How long Mr Gordhan can retain the advantage of his appointment, which was critical in redressing the market havoc caused by Mr Zuma’s appointment of Mr van Rooyen, will be another interesting development to watch. Ranged against any departure by government from a policy of fiscal consolidation will be the credit rating agencies, which Mr Zuma can ill afford to alienate.

With continued sluggish economic growth on the cards, government finances will be severely constrained and an announcement of higher taxes can be expected in the budget. Government has little room to move and will need to cut expenditure if it is to stick to its fiscal policies. Again this is where the president’s lack of leadership will be tested.

Another point of conflict between Mr Zuma and Mr Gordhan could well be in the management of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) and the fate of its Zuma-appointed commissioner Tom Moyane. There is no love lost between Mr Gordhan and the commissioner, who seemed to have endorsed claims of wrongdoing against Mr Gordhan during his tenure as head of SARS for operating the alleged "rogue unit" within it.

But these tensions could take longer to play out. In the meantime there will be the local government elections, which could well give the ANC a rude shock in some metropolitan cities such as Nelson Mandela Bay and some in Gauteng. A tough election battle is on the horizon as political parties slug it out when campaigning starts. The extent of voter support for the EFF will also be keenly watched.