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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

The State of Election Address: The Anatomy of the Presidential Address

Jameson Maluleke - 2009-02-25

Both President Kgalema Motlanthe and his minders must have been stunned to realise that his State of Election Address has generated a great deal of hopelessness and despair in almost all South Africans regardless of the phrase "a journey of hope and resilience" being one of the main themes.

Rightly so – people are concerned about the insecurity, political instability, the effects of the global economic meltdown, and above all, they are worried about the reputation of the present leadership, its capability and ability to carry the nation's mandate, restore the dignity and pride of the beloved country. Who does not know that the present leadership team unashamedly fired the country's previous president and usurped power?

Motlanthe's minders have struck the right note in their lamentation that "the uncertainties of a political transition can pose more questions than there are currently answers. And that the global economic meltdown does pose serious dangers for our economy in terms of job losses and the quality of life of our people." Yet they chose to mention these burning issues in passing rather than give a detailed picture and how they plan to solve this social malady.
State of the Nation Addresses are, by their nature, annual events supposed to take a country into a promising future as they chart the way forward. They are also supposed to inspire hope and trust amongst the country's citizens.

Some presidential presentations, such as the speech of the former US president, Abraham Lincoln, in Gettysburg (though not a State of the Nation Address), evoke a spirit of patriotism and the love for freedom, as the following lines indicate: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Mbeki's erudite State of the Nation Addresses reveal how brilliant emotional appeals and skilful rhetoric can be woven together to form a rousing speech. His closing remarks of the 2008 State of the Nation Address bear witness to this claim: "With all hands on deck, and committed to conduct our business in an unusual and more effective fashion, we shall sustain the process of our reconstruction and development and take it to even higher levels."

Let it be said that there is virtually no reason why Motlanthe's address should have been a carbon copy of Lincoln's or Mbeki's speech, but at least his handlers should have assured the nation that the present leadership team would intelligently and diligently navigate the nation through the boisterous sea of economic and political uncertainties. To say "Our democracy is healthy" is not enough.

The president's honourable minders cleverly designed the address to commence by reminding the nation that Motlanthe is a caretaker president, and that his speech is not a genuine State of the Nation Address, but a mere part of his transient administration: "I have had to occupy the highest office in the land as a consequence of the unique circumstance arising out of the decision of the leading party in government to recall the former President. Mine is a responsibility, within a matter of a few months, to lead the National Executive in completing the mandate accorded the African National Congress in the 2004 elections, and in laying the foundation for the post-election administration to hit the ground running."

The speech features as an election package replete with promises of job creation and poverty eradication: with the national general elections around the corner, Motlanthe's minders could not resist the opportunity to hijack the State of the Nation Address into an election oration. They saw the address as a chance to boast about their party's achievements and triumphs, thereby impressing and wooing the voters. For this reason, they devoted more than two paragraphs of message reminding the people of their democratic duty to vote: "Allow me, Madam Speaker and Chairperson, in this context to urge all eligible South Africans to register and to vote in the coming national and provincial elections, so that we can shape our destiny ourselves. This we should do every working day in the municipal offices, before the voters' roll is closed ..."

On the whole, the presentation is riddled with cheap rhetoric, repetition, boasting about the ANC government's achievements, hero worship and praise songs for the party's past leaders, partisan history lectures and phoney concerns about the extent of corruption.

Official Opposition leader Helen Zille summed up the address when she pointed out that "Motlanthe used his State of the Nation Address today to deliver an ANC election speech. The State of the Nation address should look forward to the future. It should reassure the nation that the government has a comprehensive and carefully considered programme of action to meet the challenges which face us. Motlanthe's speech, by contrast, spent too much time looking back to the past."

The address moves from the premise overtly elucidated by Nazi Germany orator Adolf Hitler, "make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe in it" so as to make the nation believe that the present leadership team is ready to govern.

The president's minders are painfully aware that a national address like this should mention the issue of job creation to soften the hopeless mood of the unemployed. Mention of job creation is like a tonic to calm the peasants' anger: "Six years ago, leaders of our people came together in a Growth and Development Summit and reached agreement on the tasks all of us should undertake to improve the quality of life of South Africans, particularly to halve unemployment and poverty by 2014. These include, creating more jobs, better jobs and decent work for all ..."

Ironically, there are hundreds of vacant posts in various government departments waiting to be filled. When confronted with the issue by Tim Modise during a recent television interview two days later, Motlanthe shifted the blame to the Public Works Commission, pointing out that the commission is responsible for having the posts filled. Yet one cannot rule out the illegal practice called "jobs for pals" within the government structures. There had been numerous incidents in the past where ministers, directors and their deputies down to clerks "froze" posts until their grade 12 children had passed matric to fill the posts.

South Africans are not impressed that Motlanthe's government is "painfully aware that abject poverty is still too widespread in our society; and the level of inequality is too high." They want to know when the government is going to implement its poverty reduction programmes and how. For 15 years now, songs of "poverty reduction, alleviation, and eradication" have been the pastime of all State of the Nation Address writers. Almost all State of the Nation Addresses in South Africa include the phrase, "fight against poverty". Mbeki used to talk about "pushing the frontiers of poverty away" and in his last State of the Nation Address he hinted at the creation of a "National War Room Against Poverty", but up until now no inroads have been made in the fight against poverty except in terms of statistics which might have been "doctored".

Although the ruling party leadership would want the nation to be reminded of people who put the lives on the block for the sake of their freedom, the State of Nation Address is not the right platform for hero worship of "warriors of yesteryear". Yet Motlanthe's minders chose to transform him to be a real imbongi: "As we look back over the past 15 years, I wish to acknowledge the commitment and hard work of Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki …

In this regard, we should salute the late president of the African National Congress, Oliver Reginald Tambo, for initiating and piloting through continental and world bodies what became a compass for the peaceful resolution of the conflict in our country. A group of valiant students broke away from NUSAS to found the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) 40 years ago, which included Strini Moodley, Professor Barney Pityana, Steve Biko, Onkgopotse Tiro, Harry Nengwekhulu, Themba Sono, Mapetla Mohapi, Mosioua Lekota, Johnny Issel and Mthuli ka Shezi …"

Corruption also featured in the speech, but the president expressed the minders' concern rather than tell the nation how the government intends to tackle it: "Within public and private institutions, the possibility of nefarious schemes siphoning off resources through corruption is always a source of great concern."

It is one thing to lament a tragedy, and another to stand up and try to do something about it. It is not only the president's minders who are concerned about corruption; 48 million South Africans are deeply concerned as well. They also want the government to uproot corruption now.

History lessons have no room in a State of the Nation Address. They thrive in high schools, colleges and universities, and are of significance only to keen students of history and novice party members who are still thirsty for indoctrination. However, with nothing to tell the stunned society, Motlanthe's minders proceeded to give it free history lectures: "Above all, I stand before you with pride and confidence that the South Africa we celebrate today - worlds apart from the divisions, conflict and exclusion of a mere 15 years ago - is a product of the labours and toils of South African women and men from all walks of life." South Africans are well aware of the country's past; they went to war against the minority regime to enjoy the so-called better for all, not to be lectured in history.

More baffling is the thinking of the president's minders who bemoan the fact that "the scourge of crime remains a major source of insecurity for South Africans", while it is not ready to devise news in its fight against crime, like say, recruiting thousands of youngsters as law enforcers. The best it has done so far is to dissolve South Africa's most able crime busters, the Scorpions.

At present, neither South Africans nor foreign nationals know for sure how safe the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament will be, because no mention was made of it in the address. The president's minders would have done a sterling job had they assured the nation of its safety and security during these soccer matches.

The cholera plague that is killing and affecting a considerable number of our compatriots is also missing in the address. In their zeal to canvass for votes and to spread the party's propaganda, the president's minders forgot to tell the nation what the government is going to do to deal with the cholera pandemic.

People expected that Motlanthe's address would herald the arrival of service delivery and fulfilment of promises. But Motlanthe's handlers chose to instruct the nation to go and vote for their party. Transforming a State of the Nation Address into an election sermon is an insult to the nation's intellect. This is the kind of address that can incite people to mutiny. Let us not forget that people have been waiting for the ANC's utopian dream for the past 15 years. The address ought to have told the people to get ready for service delivery.


List of references
Former President Thabo Mbeki State of the Nation Address 2008. Issued by the Presidency.
Helen Zille was interviewed by The Star, February 6, 2009: "Motlanthe speech fails to find much favour".

Adolf Hitler was the president of Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945. A seasoned orator, Hitler was instrumental in triggering the Second World War.

Motlanthe had a one-hour television (SABC 1) interview two days after delivering his State of the Nation Address, on February, Sunday 8, 2009.

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from President Kgalema Motlanthe's State of the Nation Address, 2009. Issued by the Presidency, February 5, 2009.

Wikipedia: The Gettysburg Address was a speech by former US President Abraham Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863.