Other than members of parliament grandstanding in a bid to prove to their constituencies that they are earning their salaries, parliamentary debates do not serve much purpose. MPs use the opportunity to make elaborate speeches peppered with rhetoric, Shakespeare and Biblical references, only for these statements to disappear into the ether once the debates are over. The political crossfire in Parliament might make for entertaining viewing, much like the way some people like watching candid camera pranks, but it is rarely taken into consideration in policy making or programmes of government.
In a charged political atmosphere, as there is now between the ANC and opposition parties, the debate on the State of the Nation Address (Sona) is largely about point-scoring and attacking people on either side of the House.
Opposition parties drew first blood on Tuesday, lashing President Jacob Zuma for his speech last week being weak on substance, and renewing their claim that he was unworthy of his position. On Wednesday, the ANC lined up some of its heavyweights to strike back at opposition leaders, particularly over their recent co-operation against Zuma. In November, eight opposition parties led by the Democratic Alliance (DA) brought a motion of no confidence in the president, which the ANC blocked from being debated. Last week a joint briefing by opposition parties to react to the Sona also earned the ire of the ANC.
Minister of Public Service of Administration Lindiwe Sisulu, who opened the debate on Wednesday, was visibly angry as she lashed out at Congress of the People (Cope) leader Mosiuoa Lekota for saying that there was nepotism in the state and that people hired their “concubines”. She said she was “very offended by the downright insulting language” Lekota used to attack the public service. Sisulu said it was unethical for Lekota to be demeaning of people who could not defend themselves in Parliament.
Although Sisulu conceded that the output of public service “is less than desirable”, she said Lekota should apologise to state employees for insulting them. She said Zuma, on the other hand, was “respectful, humble and dignified”.
“That is why he continues to rise and that is why we will decimate you in the next elections,” Sisulu charged, saying she saw Lekota as a “dead man walking”.
She also attacked Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi for rebuking a young ANC MP on Tuesday for being disrespectful to her elders. She demanded to know why Buthelezi did not extend the same criticism to DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. “Why don’t you rebuke lengane (this little girl) when she speaks about the president instead of trailing behind her to press conferences,” Sisulu said.
Responding to allegations of corruption in the public service, Sisulu said government would be setting up an anti-corruption bureau with powers and authority to investigate across the whole of government. It would be responsible for investigating, documenting and maintaining databases, and ensuring that disciplinary cases were finalised expeditiously.
Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande also launched into the opposition, particularly smaller parties toeing the DA line, which he referred to as “DA lite”.
He said statements about lost confidence in the president were “frivolous”. Addressing Lekota, Nzimande said: “How do you lose confidence in someone you never had in the first place? In any case, the feeling is mutual. We don’t have confidence in you too – the same as millions of South Africans who don’t vote for you.”
Several opposition MPs speaking on Tuesday focused on the abuse of women following the brutal rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysen earlier this month. Cope MP Juli Killian said the reintroduction of special sexual offences courts was not enough to halt the “horrific scourge” of sexual violence.
“We have had enough. We demand a paradigm shift from men in society. Treating the symptoms of what is essentially a collapse of the social fibre of our nation, a sociological and criminal national disease, is clearly not working,” Killian said.
African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe said those found guilty of rape should face the “severest punishment”.
Meshoe also wanted to know from Zuma why he needed a bunker at his Nkandla residence, and if there was a threat to bomb the president’s private home. He also wanted to know if there was truth to media reports that a tuck shop had been built at the homestead at taxpayers’ expense and if Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi had lied when he said that public funds had only been spent on security upgrades.
DA MP Wilmot James said although Zuma had spoken of the National Development Plan (NDP), he has yet to say how any of its key proposals would be implemented.
“The NDP proposes to introduce incentive schemes linked to the annual national assessments to reward schools for consistent improvements. It also defines competency as achieving 50% and above. And it seeks to improve literacy, numeracy, mathematics and science. But instead of plainly saying how the government could achieve these three objectives, the president spoke about reviewing teacher salaries and service conditions,” James said.
His colleague, Tim Harris, was more forthright in his criticism of Zuma.
“The president’s speech and the contributions from the ANC members to this debate have let South Africa down, just when we need real leadership. This debate was an opportunity to assure South Africa that this government has big ideas to tackle our significant problems, to show that this president was prepared to take tough, even unpopular decisions to introduce key reforms to enhance delivery. But it was an opportunity missed,” he said.
He said the ANC was paranoid that the opposition was now united. “The opposition is uniting because it is so obvious to all of us what a disastrous government the ANC has been,” Harris said.
Closing the debate, Deputy Minister of Public Works Jeremy Cronin said there was an opposition bloc “focused on division, negativity, and carping”. He said while opposition parties endorsed the NDP, they had an “ignoble objective” in doing so.
“They seek to twist and distort NDP to pit the government against the labour movement, the ANC against teachers. They vainly want to play the National Development Plan off against the New Growth Path. They seek to launch the unemployed against the working poor. Opportunism, short-termism, narrow-mindedness is the name of their game,” Cronin said.
Cronin’s speech was watched closely for mention of the Nkandla renovations conducted by his department. Interestingly though, while the Nkandla issue was in the prepared text of his speech, he curiously did not mention it while addressing Parliament. The text included an admission that the National Key Points Act, used to conceal details about the renovations, was “anachronistic”.
Referring to Lekota’s comments, the text read: “He characterises the National Key Points Act as ‘dastardly Apartheid legislation’ – and he is probably right. This Parliament does need to look at this anachronistic and problematic piece of legislation, it may well be unconstitutional.”
Cronin instead stuck to his attack on the opposition, particularly the DA, which he said often reduced politics in South Africa “to an inter-provincial Absa Currie Cup competition”. “We are constantly treated to DA-boasting about how well the Western Cape is doing, as if it was all simply down to them,” he said.
Cronin asked Zuma if he could, in his reply to the debate on Thursday, “generously invite the opposition parties to come down off their high perch of self-righteousness and join the rest of South Africa in the often complex and essential consensus-building process.”
It is not known how many South Africans have watched the two-day debate. Nor is it known how many have come away proud of the performances of their elected representatives. But if the debate was any reflection of the state of the nation, South Africa is a House divided. DM
Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town, February 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"If a man seeks from the good life anything beyond itself, it is not the good life he is seeking" ~ Plotinus