President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SOWETAN
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SOWETAN

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma returns to Parliament on Thursday to deliver his annual state of the nation address against the backdrop of rising social tension and deepening inequality. Yet he comes to Parliament emboldened after his victory at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) elective conference in Mangaung.

Despite his position of strength within his party, it is the country he is addressing on Thursday and not just the party faithful. He will have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to both improve the national mood and provide a narrative for moving forward as a nation. It will not be easy and it is not Zuma’s job alone to find solutions. He will need all the social actors to play their part, and the events at Marikana have shown that the private sector is crucial in finding lasting solutions to our social crises.

Last year, the pivot of the speech was infrastructure. Largely welcomed by business and labour as an important intervention in creating jobs, it was Zuma’s "Big Idea". He will thus have to report back on the progress made by the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordination Commission. We know meetings have been held at local, provincial and national level to roll out the 18 strategic infrastructure plans, yet more detail is required on progress. The legislation aimed at facilitating these infrastructure development plans, the proposed Infrastructure Development Act, does not yet exist.

The ANC’s January 8 statement, always a precursor to the state of the nation address, mentions a "special presidential package initiative" to assist mine workers living in impoverished conditions. No doubt education and healthcare will continue to be raised as priorities. Yet, the R300m set aside last year for building new universities is not enough and plans seem to be floundering. What is the motivation for building new universities when many of the ones we have are in need of further human resource and infrastructure development? Perhaps Zuma will focus on further education and training colleges, which school-leavers find so difficult to access because of a lack of funding. The health minister has made progress on the rejuvenation of certain hospitals, yet more will need to be done for rural hospitals. Will Zuma truly seek to grasp the nettle of the deep crisis of education and healthcare?

But this day is also about hearing Zuma’s thoughts on the societal issues that concern us all so deeply; from brutal rape and murder to corruption and the "securitisation" of the state. The Protection of State Information Bill and the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill speak of the paranoia that has enveloped this administration. If Zuma was serious about an open democracy, he would not sign the flawed "secrecy bill" into law when it comes his way, as it surely will now. Further tension is on the horizon as the controversial "e-tolling" legislation was abruptly held in abeyance last year after protest and legal action. It is up for discussion again in Parliament soon. Is Zuma’s government prepared to engage in a bruising battle with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on the secrecy bill and e-tolling? And will Zuma seek to commit his government to a youth wage subsidy to tackle unemployment or will we continue to drift on an ideological sea?

While Zuma might have been emboldened at Mangaung, next year is an election year and so the perennial "wooing" of Cosatu will have to begin. Cosatu remains divided and so, for its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, this will be a tough year as the unions stand their ground on a number of key issues, including the right of teachers to strike.

But apart from the unions, Zuma speaks to all the citizens of South Africa this week, including and especially those who protest daily at poor service delivery, corruption within municipalities and various other societal pressures.

The so-called local government turnaround strategy has not been particularly effective and there are serious questions about the efficacy of the government’s land redistribution programme.

South Africa is deeply divided. Somehow, the policies and programmes of the government need to help bridge the divides. The National Development Plan goes some way to doing that. Yet, decisive leadership is needed to make the tough choices that the plan calls for.

Zuma has an opportunity to display such leadership this week; the citizens of this rather beleaguered, but still hopeful, nation are ready to listen.

• February is executive director: democracy and governance at the Human Sciences Research Council.