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Thabo Mbeki's neo-liberal state of the nation address, while re-committing South Africa to market-friendly economic policies, failed to outline specific programmes to meaningfully deal with the country's worsening poverty and underdevelopment. The 'have-nots', who have suffered severely in the last ten years as a result of conservative economic policies, should therefore brace themselves for more hardship.

It is very hypocritical for parliament to have chosen the theme "All shall have equal rights"- derived from the Freedom Charter - given the sad reality that the annual opening of parliament and parliament itself are a very good reflection of growing inequalities between the rich and the poor.

The annual event has become a Hollywood-style fashion extravaganza. The SABC's fashion commentator skilfully scrutinized numerous trendy outfits worn by the elite.

Despite SA's worsening levels of poverty and inequalities, Mbeki, as a result of recent surveys, is very optimistic and hopeful that the economic policies are taking the country in the right direction. Unfortunately, reality on the ground paints a very gloomy picture.

As widely expected, economic growth and government's 'Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative' (ASGISA), featured prominently. This, and other government's neo-liberal initiatives, have seen South Africa's ruling politicians, 'prostituting' themselves to the financially well endowed corporations and the markets that they control in an attempt to attract the much craved foreign investment, with dire consequences for the masses.

ASGISA sees increased exports as fundamental for economic growth and the projected six percent annual growth rate in the next few years. However, in recent years, the country has managed to drastically increase its exports, but this has come at a heavy price for the working class. While output growth has increased, employment growth has declined in major sectors, such as manufacturing, business services, agriculture and mining.

As the Cape Town based Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) points out, export oriented growth also means increased competition which, in many instances, has meant cost reduction which leads to unsafe working conditions, retrenchments and cutting of working hours and wages.

At the expense of the poor, the ANC government has put too much reliance on the private sector. The problem with this however, is that the private sector's primary aim is to increase profitability. Private companies are not accountable to anyone but shareholders. South Africa, with its heavy apartheid induced services backlog, cannot afford this situation.

Upcoming celebrations on June 16 and August 09 marking the 30th anniversary of the Soweto youth uprising and the 50th anniversary of the women's march to the Union buildings, respectively, mean very little for the majority of women and youth who, as a result of government's policies, are confronted with extreme poverty on a daily basis.

It is estimated that 70% of the unemployed are young people. Most have never worked in their life. Only about 14% of those graduating from tertiary institutions, each year find secure employment in the formal economy. Yet, none of our so-called 'experts' see the connection between this hopeless situation and youth involvement in crime, survival sex, substance abuse, etc.

Instead, in true South African-style, the government plans to deal with the symptoms and not the causes. Mbeki mentioned a plan to improve resource allocation within the justice systerm to ensure that "crime does not pay". The fact that a large majority of those overcrowding our prisons are arrested for what most sociologists view as "poverty related" crimes is immaterial.

Because of government's strict fiscal discipline, and Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's AIDS denial, the life saving anti retroviral drugs are only available to a fraction of infected persons - mostly women and youth - at government hospitals. Only about a hundred thousand of about six million HIV/AIDS patients are on anti retroviral medicine at public institutions.

Is it therefore not an insult and insensitive for Mbeki to suggest that we should be proud of this horrific situation?

Opposition parties, who have, in the backdrop of electioneering for the March 01 local government elections, portrayed themselves as an 'alternative' to the ANC, whilst having raised a few minor misgivings about Mbeki's speech, are in full agreement with the overall anti-poor capitalist agenda.

The failure to acknowledge that it is the top down capitalist policies of the ruling party that breed corruption and poverty, give the lie to their claims.

Certainly, there is an urgent need to conduct an intensive nationwide debate of government's economic policies that have rendered freedom and democracy enigmatic for many South Africans.

Is it not the right time then to demand an end to privatisation and outsourcing? Was the struggle against apartheid also not about decent and secure jobs? With more than eight million of the economically active population unemployed, should we not be demanding urgent steps to curb the unemployment virus?