President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

ANALYSIS of US President Barack Obama’s state of the union address on Tuesday varied according to the political stance of the commentators. But most had one observation in common: securing a second term has made Mr Obama far more assertive and less inclined to compromise.

For better or worse, his policy "wish list" was the most ambitious and unapologetic of his presidency so far. Assuming he manages to implement all or even some of the policies he called for, the success or failure of his second term will fall on him alone.

President Jacob Zuma will deliver his annual state of the nation address at the opening of Parliament in Cape Town this evening, and there is a clear parallel between his situation and Mr Obama’s. He too has just received greater than expected support for a second term, in this case as president of the ruling party. The question is: will the political security he was granted at Mangaung translate into a more focused state of the nation speech?

The controversial manner in which he came to power demanded that Mr Zuma make a lot of promises and keep a number of disparate factions in the African National Congress (ANC) happy during his first term. The outcome has been policy chaos, the effects of which are starting to hit home hard in the form of wilting trade figures, a weakening currency, soaring unemployment, increasingly violent strikes and rising social unrest.

An Ipsos opinion survey released on Wednesday indicated that the public’s rating of the government had dropped sharply over the past six months, with barely half of respondents approving of its performance in November, compared with 61% in May. The government was given a rating of less than 50% in 17 out of 25 policy areas, compared with 14 a year earlier.

It is clear the ANC is headed for trouble in next year’s election if it does not improve service delivery soon. But that will demand decisive leadership, and it is far from clear whether Mr Zuma is prepared to make the hard choices necessary to stimulate economic growth in the medium to long term.

There have been indications since Mangaung that he is now secure enough to take on the Congress of South African Trade Unions on issues that are preventing the government from achieving some of its goals — specifically the campaign against labour brokers, a youth wage subsidy and performance assessments for teachers.

However, there are also fundamental structural impediments to growth that cannot be addressed without causing serious divisions in the governing alliance, and it is doubtful that Mr Zuma has either the political will or the power to do more than pay lip service to the required reforms. His increasingly enthusiastic support for the National Development Plan (NDP), which includes a range of sensible long-term policy goals, will be meaningless if government departments, especially those that form part of the economic cluster, continue to pull in different directions.

There are now three distinct centres of policy formation in the country: the various ministries, led by alliance politicians with ideological agendas that are often poles apart; the ANC itself, both by decree from Luthuli House and from a popular vote by party branches every five years at the national policy conference; and now the NDP. The trouble is, they are not even close to being in accord with one another.

Does South Africa support free trade or protectionism? Do we want the state to dominate economic decision-making, or to create an investment climate that is conducive to private capital investment? Is South Africa to be governed by the rule of law, or at the discretion of ministers?

The answers to these important questions will not be provided by Mr Zuma this evening, but his speech will be an indication of whether he intends addressing them at all.