President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
COMPOSED: President Jacob Zuma responds to questions raised during the state of the nation address debate in the National Assembly on Thursday. Picture: GCIS

AHEAD of next week’s budget, President Jacob Zuma on Thursday gave a strong indication of a belt-tightening drive as his government attempts to rein in spending and avoid a rating downgrade to junk status.

Mr Zuma told a joint sitting of Parliament that avoiding a credit rating downgrade was "high up" on the government’s agenda and that the Cabinet had approved further austerity measures.

"Stronger measures to restore a sustainable fiscal path have been endorsed at the highest levels of government," he said.

But the pledge received a mixed reaction with some analysts saying it lacked detail and the conviction necessary to galvanise all of society to tackle an economic crisis.

The speech by a composed Mr Zuma was without the usual heckling and interjections from opposition benches, primarily because the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) boycotted Wednesday’s and Thursday’s sittings saying the president has lost his legitimacy.

Mr Zuma was at pains to emphasise the far-reaching consequences of a downgrade of SA’s rating to junk status. "A downgrade would have an adverse effect for all South Africans." Until his state of the nation address last week, Mr Zuma had tended to attribute SA’s economic woes to external factors. But his recent emphasis on the need to focus on domestic circumstances has been a prominent change in tone.

"Our position is that since we cannot change the global economic outlook, we will focus on correcting domestic circumstances that have affected confidence in the economy," he said.

The president gave credit to business leaders for their growing co-operation with the state.

"We are happy with the support of business, as they are a key stakeholder in the path we have undertaken. We have met four times with business since mid-January and the partnership is yielding results."

On crime, Mr Zuma said two specialised police units would be launched as part of a back-to-basics strategy to fight the scourge.

The units — the South African Narcotics Enforcement Bureau and the National Bureau for Illegal Firearms Control and Priority Violent Crime — will fall under the elite Hawks unit. It signals a shift in approach, as specialised units were abolished, despite resistance from civil society bodies and some opposition parties.

Tuesday’s session, on the first day of debate on the state of the nation address, played out in a typically tense environment, when the EFF once again said Mr Zuma was an illegitimate president due to his handling of the Nkandla scandal over upgrades to his home.

This assertion was in line with a statement made by Congress of the People president Mosiuoa Lekota, who walked out of the House last week after a blistering attack on Mr Zuma, whom he accused of violating his oath of office, also in relation to the Nkandla matter.

Mr Zuma embraced the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) Mmusi Maimane on Thursday in what appeared to be an attempt to further drive a wedge between the official opposition and the EFF. He praised Mr Maimane for his attempts to break the deadlock in the House last week when the EFF filibustered, delaying his speech.

However, Mr Zuma did not deal with the substantive issues raised by the DA leader during the debate. Instead he bemoaned the dearth of decorum in the House, saying MPs’ bad conduct portrayed SA in a negative light while it undermined SA’s democracy and Constitution. "Really, some of us feel very bad when we see the manner in which we carry ourselves these days."

He said the MPs involved had let down the people who had sent them to Parliament. "I think we are not doing good for our voters, people who took the decision to send us here. What is it that they can learn from us?"