Sona: Under the shadow of the securocrats
- Marianne Merten
- South Africa
- 09 Feb 2016 08:18 (South Africa)
Parliament is determined to host the State of the Nation Address by President Jacob Zuma as an orderly, high-level event of national importance. But questions surrounding the tough - some say paranoid - security measures remained unanswered by Parliament’s presiding officers and administration. The securocrat shadow hangs over Thursday 11th presidential setting out of priorities for the year at the traditional opening of the national legislature. By MARIANNE MERTEN.
Parliament, last week, insisted there was “nothing special or different” about the SONA security. Yes, there have been meetings relating to security and attention given to some aspects, said Speaker Baleka Mbete, but this “we will not discuss here. Whatever politics happens outside is not something we are preoccupied with,” said Mbete.
Earlier Mbete delineated the public threats of “civil war” by the ANC youth league president Collen Maine and the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s promises that the party would share SONA with Zuma and question why the President fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister. The firing triggered a plummeting rand and R170 billion wiped off in shares and equities.
It’s a deja-vu from last year’s run up to SONA which ended in a debacle – and photos of a laughing president sitting at the podium surrounded by bodyguards. Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana repeatedly publicly said there were no extra-ordinary security measures taken.
That’s although the EFF had promised to take their #PayBackTheMoney protests, which had already scuppered a presidential question time in the House, to Zuma on his day of SONA. Just days before the shindig, it also became clear there were special late night exercises in the National Assembly by security officials.
It is now a public fact that a “high risk unit” made up of public order police members – riot police - and the SAPS’s counter assault unit, the Praetorian Guard, forcibly evicted EFF parliamentarians from the House at 2015 SONA.
That debacle unfolded after a State Security Agency (SSA) signal jammer disrupted cell phones, triggering “Bring back the signal” chants from the press gallery, subsequently joined by opposition MPs.
In the aftermath, Mbete acknowledged there had been a security briefing on the device. “We became aware there was a plan for certain equipment to be deployed… without necessarily knowing details… because it was an item dealing with what measures had to be taken for the protection, in particular, of the head of state and deputy president,” she said at a media briefing.
Since then “bouncers”, the nickname for that kind of security, has firmly remained in the parliamentary lingo. As the National Assembly rules committee beefed up procedures for evicting unruly MPs, several riot police members joined the parliamentary protection services late last year. It was a contested process, denied at one stage by Parliament’s administration.
But on Tuesday, Mbete indicated there was a level of comfort derived from this recruitment: “We acquired the necessary human resources. We have people, who are part of the parliamentary protection service. We feel better (now),” she said.
So meetings with the security services – the Constitution defines these as the SAPS, South African National Defense Force (SANDF) and the intelligence services like SSA – are taking place, the bouncers are in place amid the parliamentary grapevine buzzing with the alleged marginalisation of long-standing, non-riot police, members of the parliamentary protection services, and uniformed police with sniffer dogs already are seen in parliamentary corridors.
Also in place are the new rules for joint-sittings, which outline the removal of a parliamentarian from the House by parliamentary protection services if requests to leave by the sergeant-at-arms are ignored. “We will apply the rules. Yes. I have no doubt about that,” said Mbete, who for the second time in two years will preside over SONA together with National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson Thandi Modise, a firm no-nonsense chair with a track-record of keeping her parliamentarians in line. Traditionally, the Speaker presides at SONA.
Democratic South Africa’s first Speaker, Frene Ginwala, will be there on Thursday. So will former president Thabo Mbeki. By Tuesday, it appears none of the other former presidents and deputy presidents had RSVP’d; last week Mgidlana said everyone had been invited. Meanwhile, the presidency says it has been inundated with requests for tickets to the public gallery. However, as Parliament has allocated only 40 tickets, shared equally between the president and his deputy, the presidency said there was nothing it could do. The overflow viewing area at the president’s Tuynhuys offices were cancelled “as a result of the depressed economic climate”, the presidency said.
What is not known are the details of the traditional pomp and ceremony alongside the red carpet fashion parade, for which designated areas are determined beyond which photographers and cameramen can’t stray. We do not know which schools and civil society organisations will form the guard of honour to greet Zuma, his deputy, the presiding officers and their deputies, the country’s judiciary and the nine premiers? Nor has the theme of this year’s SONA “Following up on our Commitments to the People” officially been announced. Traditionally at this time there have been briefings on all this, and the military bands, the fly-by, the 21-gun salute, which are part of the ceremonies. This year, none of this has yet happened.
Instead it has been Zuma, who’s been out and about galvanising interest in his state of the nation address. First it was a walk-about among commuters and informal traders at Marabastad, Pretoria, where he was surrounded by bodyguards and police in camouflage uniform carrying rather heavy-caliber automatic rifles. Then there was a visit to a refugee processing center. SAFM carried a sound bite of Zuma promising he would send Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu to the area and that he definitely would mention small business in his SONA. Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba was directed to deal with refugee’s assertion of bribery at the centre. On Tuesday it was an unprecedented lunch meeting with business leaders in Cape Town. His message? Efforts to ensure a stable energy supply are bearing fruit, workplace conflict is being addressed at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). “We have to start working together,” Zuma told the business leaders in a speech released by the presidency. “As the saying goes: ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. This (economic) crisis has created a wonderful opportunity for us to work more closely together. The issues we should look at are how we should take advantage of the weaker exchange rate to support tourism, localisation and exports broadly? How do we support small business better?”
The ANC in Parliament wants SONA to be about “changing the lives of our people for the better”, with a focus on land, a citizenry empowered through education, poverty alleviation and “turning South Africa into a huge construction site”.
Among the opposition parties in Parliament, the DA wants Zuma to sketch a bold plan to deal with the country’s economic woes and how his administration planned to raise the money to keep South Africa afloat in 2016. The Freedom Front Plus wants Zuma to discard those policies which are not working for job creation and economic growth and announce a new way of doing things. Decisive leadership on social cohesion is also expected.
The presidency, in a recent statement, said because the governing party declared 2016 as “The Year of Advancing People’s Power: Local Government is in your Hands”, this would influence the content of SONA. Dealing with the economic woes, discussed at the cabinet and ANC lekgotlas, could also be expected.
But it will all only emerge on Thursday evening from 7pm when Zuma takes the podium. As Mbete said: “The business of SONA is that the head of state must talk to us.”
It is up to Zuma to deliver an address which speaks to the real issues hampering the country’s progress – and not to giggle or show us the proverbial middle finger. But as Parliament draws another ring of steel around itself to protect the dignity of the president and the proceedings, it has not learnt that it cannot protect itself from what he says and does. DM
Photo: Members of Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) (in red) clash with security officials after being ordered out of the chamber during President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address in Cape Town, February 12, 2015. The opening of South Africa's parliament descended into chaos on Thursday as security officers fought with far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) lawmakers after they disrupted President Jacob Zuma's speech. REUTERS/Rodger Bosch/Pool