South Africa faces existential problems…

During the Leader’s speech I felt I’d lost two hours of my life; it lasted less than an hour. Its complacent tone omitted both ambition and purpose, fought battles won 20 years earlier, lacked any strategy for moving forward. It was depressing.

This Leader was President Jacob Zuma and I was watching his televised 8th January speech, marking the 104th birthday of South Africa’s ANC.

Repeatedly reminding voters of impending local elections will not itself convince them to vote. After 20 years in power the ANC’s main electoral challenge will come from those who won’t bother to vote. Zuma demanded that ANC candidates should be members of the Party: a reasonable and no doubt achievable goal. But whilst ‘drink less alcohol’, ‘work harder’ and ‘expect the police to act within the law’ are not quite ‘motherhood and apple pie’, nor do they constitute a programme for government. He read the speech verbatim and at great length, stumbling laboriously over long words and many proper nouns. His eyes barely left the script. Passion there was not.

The President claimed that land ownership was a big problem but there was no analysis and no proposal to address it. If it’s true, who’s been in charge for the last 20 years? There was barbed condemnation of the long gone apartheid system; had he forgotten the long and deep process of Mandela’s reconciliation?

The speech lacked any distinction between Party and state, denying the humility which every democratic politician must ultimately exhibit. Then there’s the economy: with 25 per cent unemployment and the Rand in free-fall (down by a quarter in just six months and still falling) this was the elephant in the room. This President sacked his senior finance minister (equivalent of the Chancellor) twice in the course of one week, just last month. If oil prices weren’t plummeting the Rand would be dead by now – so where’s the strategy for recovery?

Complacency is fed, in the minds of many South Africans, by the policy of appointing people to administer government on grounds other than competence, to put it politely. School attendances, Zuma claimed, are rising but (I’m told) exam pass rates are falling. South Africa has a huge skills shortage and shrinking manufacturing industry; the first hint of popular opposition to university fee rises led to the proposal being quickly dropped.

South Africa is an awesome country. It has space, spare agricultural capacity and a big influx of migrants, ready and willing to work, who find penury in Johannesburg preferable to penury in Sudan or Malawi. The country has natural wealth and is well-connected; but it has deep pockets of poverty, too much shanty housing and an acute sense of frustration. Its government is living in the past, knowing where it comes from but not where it’s going.

The crowd for Zuma’s speech, they said, would outnumber the stadium capacity five-fold: and yet in rare long-shot camera angles the seats were mostly empty. This was no Mandela.

As the speech drifted into the ether singing and dancing followed – reminding me that the Wizard of Oz was eventually exposed as a smaller, less significant figure than he wanted us to believe him to be.