What to expect from SONA: Not much.

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On Thursday night, President Jacob Zuma is going to address the nation. It will be his annual set-piece State of the Nation Address, an event that used to be called the Opening of Parliament. There is the usual air of expectation around what will Zuma say, whether it will lead to change, whether we will get something really, really exciting. In an election year, this becomes all the more pressing; it’s a great opportunity for Zuma to rise above the limitations of TV and radio, and sell his presidency to the people. But the past track record of these speeches, both during Zuma’s presidency and before, doesn’t raise the hopes of a jaded and cynical.

I blame FW. If he hadn’t been quite so dramatic and exciting in 1990, maybe we wouldn’t expect so much. If he hadn’t had to depart from his prepared script to say “I’m serious” about releasing Nelson Mandela, if I hadn’t heard the stories about the journalists in the SABC newsroom cheering as they ticked off the end of Apartheid on the script given to them beforehand, if he hadn’t used that forum to announce the biggest change to the country in four hundred years, perhaps this event wouldn’t carry the prestige it currently does.

And, of course, once the ANC came into government, it would be less than fair to demand that they do not talk up the prestige of the event. For many nations, there is an annual point at which they come together, to hear the plans for the future. For the Americans, it’s the State of the Union; for the Brits, it’s the Queen’s Speech (not coming soon to a cinema near you). So it makes sense that we have the same.

The problem is that actually, we just don’t hear anything new, or interesting, or even exciting, in our equivalents. And, Mac, before your blood pressure gets going again, it’s not about Zuma, or even his fault - it started long before him. The fact is that it was Thabo Mbeki who first really started to downgrade the importance of the event. Because, while the speeches sounded wonderful, and had lots of poetry, they didn’t really have much substance. There were some promises, but not many that were kept. In fact, he was the first president I’d seen with my own eyes promise that this would be the year we fix broadband. Kgalema Motlanthe made the same promise, and Zuma followed him.

But Mbeki’s main problem was two-fold. One, he just didn’t seem to care, and two, those of us who watched his speeches were too interested in whether he would say the words “HIV-AIDS” before “TB and malaria”. AIDS somehow always seemed to hang over his speeches, when he would only utter the phrase once. But the nadir had to be his speech in 2003. He spent the majority of it telling the US not to invade Iraq. All well and good, if you happen to be student of international relations. Great if you agree with him and you enjoy the echo. But if you’re someone waiting for a job, or hoping against hope that government hospitals will give you an ARV pill, not so much fun. As then-DA leader Tony Leon put it, “[t]he  battle in South Africa is in the wards of Baragwanath, not on the streets of Baghdad.”

Since then, it's been a little bit of a downward trend. In fact, to a large extent, much of the speculation beforehand each year has had more to do with internal ANC politics than with the big promises and claims of how the country would change. You can imagine what was like in 2008, for example. You had Mbeki, speaking to the nation, in office, but most definitely not in charge. A few months later, he was gone, and Motlanthe had taken over.

That meant that in the weeks before Motlanthe's State of the Nation, just a couple of months before the 2009 elections, the Presidency actually had to damp down serious speculation that his speech, and the entire event, would be done on a very small scale, because he wasn't really the president. We all knew he was a place-holder for Zuma, and you can imagine how that speculation ran through the assembled ranks of the country's political hack-pack. Particularly at a time when Zuma still faced corruption charges, Gwede Mantashe was fulminating about "counter-revolutionary judges" and Zapiro was drawing cartoons of Lady Justice, and Zuma... and not showing Zuma's best side.

But in the end, Motlanthe's speech went ahead, it was presidential, and the usual promises were made... a better life for all, broadband in every home, etc. And we didn't have to look for the nuance on Aids: things were beginning to look up there already.

Which brings us to Zuma in 2010.

It was a disaster. Just ten days before, the Sunday Times had a can't-make-it-up lead that Zuma had fathered a baby with Sonono Khoza. It wasn't a great moment for those who claim polygamy keeps men faithful. Already there were claims that Zuma could be "recalled" by the ANC less than a year into his presidency. And then, when the speech finally started, it seemed that the pages had been given to him in the wrong order. Unforgivable, if true.

You had to wonder if he was being deliberately sabotaged.

But by 2011, he was back, large and in charge, very much the man properly running the ANC. It's a huge testament to his political skills, and sheer courage, that he was able to reassert himself so strongly. It helped that the National General Council of the ANC in 2010 had gone his way, and that by then, Julius Malema was on the back foot. But Zuma himself was back in a big way.

It showed, to an extent, in his speech. But it still wasn't great.

And while the chattering classes like to make fun of Zuma's oratorical skills in English, I've said before that that is missing the point. Quite frankly, our SONAs aren't that great because TV just ain't how we do our politics. The fact that this is really the only occasion on which Zuma makes a big television speech is testament to that. We don't really have "addressing the nation" in the way that Roosevelt made big with his fireside chats in the 1930s. We do things differently. TV still matters, obviously; it's a huge medium, and the good television newscasts draw millions. But generally speaking, how you look on telly speaking English doesn't decide whether people vote for you.

So maybe, just maybe, it's time to downgrade our expectations of our annual State of the Nation. 

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick

Grootes is the senior political reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report. This will be at least his seventh State of the Nation Address.

Photo by Reuters.