Short of firing his entire Cabinet or declaring war on a neighbouring country, there is really nothing President Jacob Zuma could have said in Parliament on Thursday to displace Oscar Pistorius from the top of the news agenda. But while he had the podium in Parliament, Zuma took the opportunity to backhand the opposition for their attempt to pass a motion of no confidence in him, which led to a curious exchange with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Then Zuma invited all the parties to play nicely together, ending a week of extraordinary parliamentary theatre. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Since eight opposition parties attempted to table a motion of No Confidence in President Jacob Zuma last November, he has steered clear of the issue, while other leaders in the ANC went out to defend him. As with most controversies surrounding Zuma, he appears dispassionate and only comments when he is forced to.
On Thursday, Zuma was replying to the debate on the State of the Nation Address in Parliament, and surprisingly ventured into the territory of the motion of no confidence on his own: Unscripted response.
He followed on the thread in the debate where several ANC MPs lashed out at the opposition for their recent synchronised move against Zuma, including the motion of No Confidence led by the Democratic Alliance.
“Certainly, I have no difficulty if the opposition join hands. It defines a particular political landscape in one sense, if you all understand what democracy is. People have a free choice to choose partners, to choose those you can work with.
“It does also define that some people, as parties, have difficulties to have a distinct view on issues; they must hang on others... We are together. Fine. That is democracy. The reality is that it is always good in democracy to have views you can identify. Once it is blurred you don’t know which one is what. It is a problem,” Zuma said, to applause from the ANC benches.
He said although parties contested elections and drew votes on the basis of the issues they campaigned for, they now “come here and push other people’s programmes”.
Zuma’s surprise move was triggered by comments made by Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi during the debate, who complained that the president had not responded to a letter he wrote to him, explaining his decision to support the motion of No Confidence.
Zuma said he had a problem with Buthelezi acting with other parties against him and then writing to him to explain. Clearly annoyed, Zuma said he has had many confidential discussions with the IFP leader, which he would not want to divulge. But he said he was a “little bit uncomfortable” that “whatever goes wrong… I am to blame. That’s not right.”
Almost threatening to divulge the confidential discussions between him and Buthelezi, Zuma said: “Let us not score points in a wrong manner.”
Buthelezi was so flustered by Zuma’s comments that he broke with parliamentary protocol and asked the Speaker Max Sisulu to interject the president’s speech and ask Zuma “two small questions”. Sisulu initially denied the request but Zuma, clearly revved up, said he was prepared to take the questions.
There were no questions.
Instead, Buthelezi rambled for a while, revealing that Zuma had advised him that it was time to retire. “Some of your ministers... referred to the fact that – repeating almost what [you] said to me – you think I should retire because there are people who are saying... some things about me,” Buthelezi said, causing the House to erupt in laughter.
He also complained that there were other letters he had written to Zuma, to which he had never received a response. Zuma’s response was curt: “I thought there would be very serious questions. [That was] just a comment. I don’t want to discuss things that we said in confidence. I don’t appreciate scoring of points the way it is being done.”
Zuma returned to the text of his speech, in which he said government was encouraged by some recent reports on South Africa’s economic performance.
This included global business and audit advisory firm Grant Thornton’s report stating that South Africa has maintained its position as the leading emerging economy on the African continent in terms of potential investment destinations. It reported that South Africa had climbed one place to the fourteenth position.
“Ernst & Young in its report also said local economic fundamentals were sound and that a steady acceleration of growth over the medium term was expected. However, they also pointed out that the country’s short-term economic challenges such as the current account deficit and debt levels needed to be addressed in the upcoming 2013 budget,” Zuma said.
The Budget will be presented by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan next Wednesday.
Zuma noted that the issue of youth unemployment had been “raised sharply” in the debate. The DA in particular was critical of government’s failure to commit to the youth wage subsidy.
He, however, repeated the what he said in the State of the Nation Address last week - that the matter would be left to the National Economic Development and Labour Council to bridge consensus on youth employment interventions.
Addressing various issues raised by MPs on the abuse and status of women, Zuma acknowledged that the controversial Traditional Court Bill was criticised for being flawed. He said the criticisms included that the Bill is unconstitutional in that it prohibits legal representation in traditional courts, does not contain provisions to ensure that women form part of the courts, that it entrenches balkanisation of traditional communities in accordance with the boundaries of the old tribal authorities of the defunct Bantustans; and restricts access to justice by denying the right of persons to pursue redress in courts of law.
“All these concerns and more should be addressed during the parliamentary processes, as the Bill is currently before parliament. As government we have heard the concerns loudly and clearly,” Zuma said.
Zuma then extended an olive branch to the opposition. He said when the Deputy Minister of Public Works Jeremy Cronin spoke during the debate on Wednesday, he stated that opposition parties “had sidelined themselves from the broad consensus building processes underway in the country”.
“He was sceptical about their ability to join the mainstream. Unlike Honourable Cronin, I am optimistic.”
“As we move to the 20th anniversary of freedom, there should emerge a common thread of patriotism that binds us. We should put South Africa first. All of us have a patriotic duty and responsibility to build and promote our country. Rhetoric and grandstanding is a luxury the country cannot afford,” Zuma said.
He said the National Development Plan 2030 provided “a perfect vehicle” for united action precisely because it has the support of South Africans across the political and cultural spectrums.
“Leaders in every avenue should be ready to rise above sectional interests, and with greater maturity, pull together to take this country forward… We can disagree on as many issues as we want to, but we have to find issues where we put South Africa and our people first,” Zuma said.
These feel-good statements brought to a close the first week of the 2013 parliamentary year. Judging by the debate on the State of the Nation Address, it is likely to be a year of divisive debates over government programmes and legislation. The official opposition is vowing to re-table the motion of No Confidence in the president and the ANC is likely to fight back once again.
At the Daily Maverick, we like to play our part in building consensus. After a truly incredible week of courtroom and parliamentary drama, here is our little contribution to help South Africa “get together and feel all right”. Heaven knows we need it. DM
Photo: Jacob, err, Marley (Graphic by Daily Maverick)