Zuma promises 500,000 new jobs. Can he deliver?

In state of nation speech, critics say South Africa's president failed to make tough choices needed in a recession.

JOHANNESBURG – Elected with the enthusiastic support of labor unions and leftists, South African President Jacob Zuma gave his first clear statement of his government’s priorities today.

Today’s speech had a lot for a leftist to love.

It included promises of improved schools, hospitals, roads, police services, and a whopping 500,000 new jobs a year, created by government spending.

But there was also a rich butterscotch pudding of reassurance for the South African business community, who have gotten used to the pro-business and pro-foreign investment policies of Mr. Zuma’s predecessor, President Thabo Mbeki.

Can President Zuma – a man who has assumed power precisely when South Africa has joined the world in a brutal economic downturn – really do it all?

Where's the vision?

Perhaps not, but analysts say that his clear avoidance of rocking the boat may be a lost opportunity for showing vision and leadership.

“I read his speech and I ended up saying, ‘so what?’ ” says Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg.

“The first state of the nation should indicate your government’s plan and priorities for the next five years. This state of the nation says everything. And because it says everything, it doesn’t say much about your priorities of where you plan to go.”

Recessions have a way of drawing out the radical in leaders. From the US to Western Europe to Japan and China, presidents and prime ministers have responded to the current economic crisis with a robust government involvement that would have warmed the cockles of John Maynard Keynes’s heart.

But on the surface at least, South Africa’s new government appears to erred on the side of caution, leaving most of South Africa’s major political players – businessmen and labor activists alike – both comforted and uncertain about the country’s future.

No big tax shift on corporations

Business reaction to the speech has been mostly one of relief, with the South African currency, the rand, gaining in strength in the lead up to the speech as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party sent out signals that there would be no major shifting of tax burdens under the new Zuma government.

Union leaders, too, were supportive. Patrick Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trades Unions, applauded Zuma’s promise of 500,000 new jobs per year, and 4 million new jobs by 2014. South Africa is expected to lose 250,000 jobs this year due to the recession.

The gentle purr of union leaders today marks a stark contrast to the roar of the first weeks of Zuma’s presidency, in which most major unions, from the mine workers to teachers to doctors and bus drivers, have gone on strike.

Yet while Zuma’s critics appear to be calmed by Zuma’s state of the union speech, many of Zuma’s promises have been ANC goals since the former liberation party took power in 1994. Some experts say that the only real difference in this speech is in the man who gave it.

Zuma with an 'Mbeki face'

“This was an Mbeki approach with a smiling face,” says Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Tshwane (Pretoria). “The tone was different because (Presidents Zuma and Mbeki) are different people. When Zuma talks about everyone pulling on the oars together, that is an invitation. With Mbeki it sounded like instruction.”

Zuma’s pragmatism may make it difficult for Zuma’s cabinet to focus energy on top priorities, Mr. Friedman adds, but “that is the reality of South Africa.”

“You cannot achieve much unless you bring business on board, and you have to have labor on board too,” says Friedman. “The alternative is a tremendous drop in business confidence, and endless strikes.”

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