The Speech

Feb. 8, 2016 (4 years, 4 months ago)

It’s one of the most important speeches that the President delivers in any year. With a primetime tv audience, it is a tremendous PR opportunity for the President to simultaneously lay out his agenda and reassure doubters - both local and foreign.


There are a few safe bets for Thursday's address: There will be some applause lines, the odd political jibe, some tepid and obligatory clapping, namechecking guests in the gallery and no ad libbing. Don't bother to look for inspiring rhetoric and poetic speech – if it does happen it will be in small doses. This speech is not designed for that. It is mostly dull, sprawling and a laundry-list of the administration's legislative and programmatic proposals for the year.

The speech is the result of collaboration among a large number of officials in the Presidency - including policy advisors, researchers and speech writers – and outside advisors and thinkers. Traditionally, the Cabinet Lekgotla plays a central role in shaping the speech. This year, meetings were also held with business leaders and labour, which are expected to influence the speech. Every government department competes to get their input and projects into the speech. The debates on the address aren’t limited to its content but also extend to how and where their ideas are introduced. Despite the weeks of drafting, there is still tinkering happening up to the last day. It's probably only a matter of time before the Presidency screen tests the speech as part of the fine-tuning process.

The target audience consists of different constituencies, which includes MPs, citizens, trade unions, business leaders, foreign investors, foreign governments and credit rating agencies. The media, pundits and stakeholder groups, will dissect every word and inflection carefully days after, to make sense of what it all means for particular sectors.

Some argue that too much attention and meaning is ascribed to the speech when it is quickly forgotten by the public. Others point out that it sets the tone for the year. Memorability is probably the best way to measure the success of this type of speech and this is seldom achieved. Either way, the reaction from the gallery, public (via social media, polling), political opponents and the markets will be known instantly. This is an election year so the political impact could also be felt later as well.

Many of the items included in the speech will not be accomplished – several ideas are long-term visions, while some proposals won't be successful. Also, the facts and figures trotted out are not always true and can lack context (Read Africa Check here and here).

President Zuma’s SONA speeches have typically lasted about an hour and are approximately 5000 words. President Mandela's speeches averaged around 6000 words and President Mbeki 7000 words.

What about the main talking points for this year? According to political parties and many experts, the economy is at the top of the list. This is against the backdrop of a depreciating Rand, low growth, a deteriorating inflation outlook, job cuts and weak commodity prices. Announcements on social and infrastructure programmes, tax reform, higher education and the local government elections are expected to feature.

At the best of times, this is a difficult kind of speech to give. This is even more so in a difficult climate where the challenges are severe and critics loud and hostile. South Africa will be watching.

President Zuma is delivering his ninth speech so he does not need any advice. Here are a few tips if you ever have to give a SONA speech one day:

  1. Make it short and to-the-point. Quality, substance and brevity trumps rambling.

  2. Address the burning issues. Don't tip-toe around issues that need confronting. Tackle them head-on.

  3. Rehearse. This enables you to speak with conviction and certainty. It also minimises the risk of stumbles.

  4. Tonality, cadence and energy are important.


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