Fighting poverty takes a holistic approach

President Thabo Mbeki's state of the nation speech on Friday was probably his most workmanlike since June 2 1999, when he accepted the nation's vote for him to be president.

President Thabo Mbeki's state of the nation speech on Friday was probably his most workmanlike since June 2 1999, when he accepted the nation's vote for him to be president.

Then, he gave a terse speech, which ended with the injunction: "Let's get to work."

Eight years later, a subdued Mbeki did not use any of his trademark poetry to speak to the nation. Instead, he was like the principal at a rural school reading out what is good and what is not so good in the nation.

It is a speech that has the nation and its political observers divided. Is it a new Mbeki era of acknowledging problems or just another speech that skirts the real issues?

Indeed, one opposition leader said the speech signified that the Mbeki era had "run out of gas", while others like the ANC's Smuts Ngonyama said this was a speech that would take Mbeki's rule to a higher, more efficient level.

I think that this was one of Mbeki's most philosophical and revealing speeches. If anyone says they do not know Mbeki, they should read this speech. It is an important speech because it says to everyone in this country and elsewhere that, despite everything we may say about Mbeki, this is what he believes is his number one priority.

The noise about crime, the outcry over corruption around the arms deal, the hullabaloo around so many other issues such as slow delivery, well, for Mbeki those are challenges to be dealt with. But his speech was really a finger-wagging exercise, a chance for him to tell us that the brickbats thrown at him do not know what he stands for.

Mbeki articulated this main plank of his government and, I believe, his personal philosophy, when he said: "We must continue to respond to the perspective we spoke of as the present government began its term of office, fully conscious that 'none of the great social problems we have to solve is capable of resolution outside the context of the creation of jobs and the alleviation and eradication of poverty', and therefore that 'the struggle to eradicate poverty has been and will continue to be a central part of the national effort to build the new South Africa'."

This theme, this declaration that poverty is the main challenge of the new South Africa, runs throughout Mbeki's delivery. Note that after he admits to failures on delivery of water, on education (he pointed out the sobering fact that the number of matric students who pass mathematics at the higher grade is only slightly better than in 1995) and on land, he says that we must "define clearly the poverty matrix of our country".

He goes on to refer to "freedom from want" and says: "The economic programmes to which we have referred form part of the concerted drive in which all of South Africa should engage in order to reduce the levels of poverty and inequality in our society. For us it is not a mere cliche to assert that the success of our democracy should and will be measured by the concrete steps we take to improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable in our society."

For me, the list of things that have been done and the even bigger list of things yet to be done that Mbeki gave was secondary to this message. Mbeki was saying to many parts of our country: "Don't tell me what to do on crime or any other issue. My number one priority is poverty and nothing else. I will address your concerns if they relate to my fight on poverty. All else is secondary."

It is a powerful - and very fair - stance for Mbeki to take. After all, who can deny the absolute wretchedness of the lives of many of our compatriots? Who can deny that so many among us go to sleep with nothing in their stomachs?

And yet the speech showed Mbeki's blind spot. If he believes so strongly that poverty is our main challenge, why then did he drive our country's inexcusable purchase of useless arms for billions of rand? How is the arms deal helping in the fight to eradicate poverty?

Mbeki shows his two-facedness further by keeping silent about the growing evidence of corruption in the arms deal, particularly the fact that the late defence minister, Joe Modise, might have received bribes.

Mbeki talks about the fight against poverty as though the eradication of this scourge is a straight line. He should be the one to know that HIV-Aids, for example, is killing more poor people than any other class of society. This is probably the most pressing challenge - more than crime or anything else - facing the poor.

Yet pick up that speech and you will see that Mbeki dedicated a mere paragraph to the scourge of HIV-Aids. This weekend alone I know of two childhood friends who were buried after fighting this disease. Examples of Mbeki's blind spots are numerous. He is absolutely right to dwell so long on poverty, but absolutely wrong to pretend that the road to alleviation of poverty means failing to deal with crime or to even speak to his people in empathetic terms on the issue.

Those of us who grew up in the rural areas know that if you wanted a donkey to stay on a straight path you put oogklappe(blinkers) on it. Mbeki must realise that the fight against poverty needs a holistic view. It needs a view that takes in safety and security, foreign policy, health and a whole range of things.

It is to be welcomed that Mbeki put poverty at the centre of his government. Now he must take off the oogklappe.