As the political year grinds into motion, it seems clear that Julius Malema is still in the driver’s seat. He has managed, already, to put the ANC and Parliament both on the back foot in one move. At the same time, he’s taken some of the attention away from what should have been the political story of the weekend, the ANC’s 8 January celebration in Cape Town. Considering he leads what is really quite a small party, that is no mean feat. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Sunday morning, while those running the ANC expected to dominate the Sunday newspaper agenda with pictures and comments from Cape Town Stadium, the City Press led with what looked like a well-leaked letter from Malema, as leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, to National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete.
In the letter, Malema demands that Mbete call a special session of the National Assembly to give President Jacob Zuma the chance to reveal when he will “pay back the money”. He goes on to threaten that if she doesn’t, he will have no choice but to disrupt the State of the Nation Address by putting the question to Zuma then.
As a political stunt/ manoeuvre, it’s pure genius. Gwede Mantashe might have smiled (briefly/quietly) in appreciation. Mbete is in an impossible position. There is no way she can recall Parliament for this session. Not just because of the logistics, or because the ANC caucus will go berserk at being asked to dance to Malema’s tune, but mainly because Number One himself will simply not come. There is nothing in Zuma’s conduct up to this point to suggest that he will subject himself to answering this kind of question.
In fact, it appears that Zuma’s conduct on the Nkandla issue until now has actually shown up what could be called “dictatorial tendencies” more than his behaviour in any other area. His comment at the end of last year in an interview with the SABC that allowing Malema’s disruptions of Parliament to continue would be “worse than a dictatorship” is surely quite indicative of his own attitude. Does this mean he really believes it is right to crack down on dissent simply because he doesn’t like it?
(And how does he explain the comment in the first place – how is a disruption worse than actually living in a dictatorship? Surely a disruption passes and life goes on as normal, while in a dictatorship, freedom is curtailed, and the dictator is everything. The dictator is also often equal to the state, and therefore can build whatever estate he wishes…)
The real genius of Malema’s letter to Mbete is that it keeps Luthuli House guessing. As we’ve remarked before, Zuma is not at his best during his set-piece Parliamentary speeches. He sometimes looks nervous, ill at ease. Last year, he actually looked ill (he seems to have recovered now). Bluntly, one never gets the feeling he actually enjoys the experience, but rather finds it a trial.
Speaking in public, knowing that you could be barracked, adds to that stress. Because it happens in a live environment, and you are up there on your own, it is very hard to know how to react. It is, to all intents and purposes, as if you are now suddenly in a live TV debate, the likes of which this country has not seen since Nelson Mandela took on then-president FW de Klerk in 1994 (and won hands down, by taking de Klerk’s hand, and talking about how they were going to work together. Since then, the ANC has always avoided such a scenario, despite repeated requests from first Tony Leon and then Helen Zille.)
To stop all of this, the ANC has very few levers to pull. It could find a way to point out that Malema might isolate himself by doing this. It would certainly be possible for the ANC to claim that this move shows the EFF is not really ready for Parliamentary politics, and is too immature to conduct “grown-up politics”. But so what? The damage would have been done, Zuma would have been humiliated on live TV, and millions of people would have seen Malema demand the president pay back the money.
The ANC could jack up security within the Parliamentary precinct itself. But Malema and his party members are MPs, and they can’t just be stopped from going into the chamber on the grounds that their accreditation is out of date. It’s hard to see how there could be any more security around a State of the Nation Address in any case. Already security is much tighter now during these occasions than it was during Apartheid; add any more police and there simply won’t be space for them all.
And if Malema does disrupt proceedings, what then? Would you send in the police again on live TV? That image would look very much like the dictatorship that Zuma claims to want to prevent. Of course, what they could probably do is somehow limit the amount of time the Parliamentary feed cameras spend on Malema, but even so, visibility would surely be impossible to avoid. And Malema makes such a noise that you can’t just claim to have missed him.
The least problematic option for the ANC at this point is probably to make some sort of promise to Malema that Zuma will return to Parliament to answer this question, just after his big speech. But that carries its own risks. Firstly, Malema clearly doesn’t trust the ANC in general and Zuma in particular. Secondly, he’ll likely make sure the promise is leaked, and claim it’s proof the ANC is worried about him, and therefore is weak.
At the moment, it appears the ANC, and thus Mbete, has very little wiggle room here, but surely the party’s best political brains will be considering this issue from all sides, in the hopes of coming up with a solution. The fact that the ANC, the majority party with 62% of the vote, has been put in this position by a small party with 6%, shows once again how Zuma, and particularly Nkandla, is currently the party’s Achilles Heel, the one that has almost removed the ANC’s ability to direct the political agenda. DM
Original photo of snooker world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan (Wikimedia Commons)