Sweet dreams: The speech I wish Zuma had given

Sisonke Msimang

I dreamed that President Zuma delivered this SONA speech last week. In it, he pledged to end the violent service delivery protests and fix local government. He sounded like a statesman and focused on the future. Then I woke up.

My Fellow South Africans,

We have a good story to tell. South Africa today is a better country than it was twenty years ago. Yet our collective responsibility is to make it better still.

We have many challenges that keep us mired in mediocrity, but none is more pressing than fact that many South Africans still lack access to water, sanitation, housing and electricity.

Every morning when I rise, my heart is heavy, as I face a nation that is increasingly at war with itself.  I take seriously my responsibilities to end the carnage and to guide us towards a peaceful future.

This state of the nation address is therefore dedicated to the women and men who have died in the violent service delivery protests that have gripped our nation in the last decade

.It is in honour of them that today I announce a plan to stop the violence and make sure that everyone in this great land has access to clean running water, a toilet, electricity and a roof over her head.

Police brutality and conflict mediation

I understand that those who resort to violence and lawlessness do so because they are frustrated and desperate. I did the same when the apartheid regime would not listen to me. But today’s government is democratic and thus is capable of listening and responding.  Today we say goodbye to the Apartheid era reflexes of the police state and embrace the Constitutional values of respect and tolerance that we so desperately need.

Over the past two decades, in places as distant as Burundi, Sudan and Ireland, we have been called upon to share our story of peace-building. It is time that we used our experiences to heal our own broken nation.

We are calling off the dogs. With immediate effect, the police will cease to be our primary tool for addressing service protests. Henceforth the police are not permitted to appear in protest zones armed with guns. This is common practice elsewhere in the world, and Commissioner Phiyega and I have agreed that the police are ready to adopt this practice today.

The police will continue to be a physical presence in communities when there is a protest but they will be there largely to ensure the safety of community members and our top-notch mediation teams. I have established a Mediation Unit within the police, whose head will report to me directly to ensure independence. The role of the Unit will be to defuse tension and to establish longer-term processes for realistically addressing the needs of communities.  Protestors are not, in the main, criminals. We need to treat them with respect even as we expect the same from them.

Renewed local leadership

At the end of Apartheid we took experienced leaders out of their communities so that they could work for national government. Back then we needed to build the capacity of the state structures in Pretoria. Twenty years later, we have not invested enough in the next generation of local leaders. We have also neglected the technical, administrative and managerial competencies required to actually run local government structures.

To address this, I am pleased to introduce a fully funded ten-year programme to train engineers, technicians, plumbers, and other vocational trades so that local capacity exists to make local government work. We have also convinced the five largest accounting firms in the country to donate R 1 billion in billable hours to local governments. This will support auditing and accounting skills building and the installation of software and hardware to manage local government systems. We are pleased to have such good corporate citizens in this country.

Personal consequences

We all know that corruption is rife at local government, and that community protests are often exacerbated by the arrogance of local politicians. While there are many hardworking councillors, we must deal with those who are problematic.  Research by local think tanks tells us that violence is often sparked by political figures who keep angry crowds waiting, or who fail to show up after promising to resolve long-standing grievances.

Let me speak for a moment as a member of the ANC and as a South African, not as the president. Any ANC member who makes crowds wait, or who fails to respond to the legitimate requests of communities, will be charged with inciting violence and will face the full might of the law.

We are listening and we are ready to act

Beginning next week, various members of the South African cabinet, alongside officials from the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), will host a series of imbizos around the country. The teams will crisscross the length and the breadth of South Africa, visiting each and every municipal structure that exists, in order to hear your specific concerns. More importantly, we will be there to solve problems.

In the past year we have learned that waiting for one community after another to explode is a recipe for violence and disaster. We must be proactive and we must come in peace.

Learning from mistakes

Let me end this address by reminding us of a painful but triumphant part of our recent history. Fifteen years ago, HIV positive South Africans began to march on the streets to demand treatment. Initially, we the powerful, ignored them. When that did not work, we scorned them. Finally we saw that they were patriots, and that they were fighting for a better life for all of us.

The implementation of their demands has lead to higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality. Millions of people are living longer healthier lives, simply because we listened. We must do the same with respect to the service delivery crisis.

My fellow South Africans, this country is indeed better than it was twenty years ago. It is our collective responsibility to make it better still. I stand ready to play my part.

I thank you. 

* This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick and can be viewed here

With a background in funding non-profit organisations fighting for democratic change in Africa, Msimang has become a powerful advocate for the better use of money and power on her continent. She writes about money, power and sex. She is the former executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

To read publications by Sisonke Msimang on our website please click here.

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