It is the week of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) and ordinarily, all eyes should be on President Jacob Zuma for his game plan for the year. But after listening to Zuma deliver seven previous SONAs – two of them in 2014 – there is not much excitement about the content of the address. The focus on this year’s SONA is because of the sideshow the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leaders Julius Malema has promised. After all the drama the EFF delivered last year, everyone expects a spectacle. What happens if it fizzles out? Do Malema and his red army lose their currency if they cannot put the president on the spot again? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
It would be an interesting exercise to survey how many people will watch Thursday’s Opening of Parliament just to see what the EFF gets up to. The event, usually known for its over-the-top pomp and ceremony and garish fashion, is entirely deflected this year by the EFF’s promise to interrupt President Jacob Zuma’s speech and ask him when he will be paying back the money for the upgrades at his Nkandla residence.
The EFF has announced how and at what moment they plan to confront Zuma, saying they are not prepared to wait till the debate on the SONA next week or the president’s question session in Parliament in March for an answer. They have hyped up the moment so much that they have a ticker on their website counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds till they can rise on a point of order and ask Zuma when he will reimburse the state.
The threat has caused such consternation that Parliament has undertaken extraordinary measures to prepare for anything from a rebel army invasion to a freestyle street brawl in the National Assembly. From spooks overseeing the accreditation process, extra police deployment and Parliamentary staff undergoing self-defence classes, high-level security processes have been put in place.
The Sunday Times reported that on Saturday night, about 80 security staff from Parliament was picked up from their homes for special training. The paper also reported that 16 “most physically strong” protection officers were sent for a three-day special training camp at a police academy on the Cape Flats where they were trained by the public order policing unit on among other things “manhandling” techniques and crowd control.
Two incidents last year when riot police were called in to Parliament sparked a furore as the South African Police Service does not have the powers to intervene in disputes that arise in the House. It seems that proper procedures in the event of a commotion have now been researched, hence the special training for Parliamentary staff.
Parliament issued a statement on Sunday evening denying the Sunday Times report, saying it was “false and mischievous”.
“Physical fitness and good conditioning are inherent competencies for safety and security officers. Parliamentary protection officers undergo training as part of their tasks. This has nothing to do specifically with the State of the Nation Address.”
The statement said the training for the protection officers would continue.
“We reject the sensational claim in the newspaper report about procurement of bulletproof vests, tommy bars, handcuffs and other equipment by Parliament for use by its protection officers. Equipment that protection officers use is in line with their responsibilities.”
The nation will have to wait until Thursday to see how this plays out. The additional security measures for invited guests and around the Parliamentary precinct is also quite inexplicable as the supposed threat is from EFF Members of Parliament (MPs) who would be unaffected by the ring of steel. As MPs, they can enter and leave Parliament unhindered and will not be carrying any weapons. Malema has already stated that the EFF will not by bussing in people for the event and that they only require their contingent of elected MPs to execute their plan.
Parliament’s staff, including Speaker Baleka Mbete, has been at pains to emphasise that an interruption of the president’s speech will not be allowed and that the EFF will have the opportunity to pose whatever questions they have at the March question session.
But EFF cannot simply drop the issue now after all that hype. They have created such expectation about what they plan to do that if they now abide by the rules of Parliament, which prohibits them from raising a point of order during a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament for such an occasion, it would appear as if they could not follow through on all the big talk.
And there has been some pretty big talk – not only on holding Zuma accountable for Nkandla. The EFF has resolved at its December congress to undertake forcible land occupation and protests at mines. They are encouraging their landless supporters to occupy land, promises to pay the legal expenses to defend them should they get arrested.
This also looks like militant rhetoric, but on Sunday the EFF took the first step towards implementing this resolution. Around 100 families were reported to be moving into unoccupied homes in Mzimhlophe, Soweto. The EFF said government built the houses nine years ago but failed to allocate them to members of the community.
By undertaking the forced occupation this week, the EFF probably wants to show that it is not only about exerting pressure on the president on Nkandla and that its focus remains on the needs of its constituency.
On Sunday, Malema visited Mohlakeng on the West Rand, where a violent service delivery protest has been in progress over demands to end corruption, improve service delivery, the dropping of high rates and taxes, the installation of prepaid metres for water and electricity and jobs.
Malema told a community meeting that their protest was justified and that after the 2016 local government elections, the EFF will run the Randfontein municipality. He promised there would never be “peace” in Parliament for as long as people are denied services.
But disturbing Parliament’s peace over service delivery will probably not get the traction the EFF is getting now by promising to pin Zuma down on Nkandla. It is the one issue that the middle classes, that did not vote EFF, are applauding Malema for. The EFF’s land programme, particularly the forcible seizure of land, will probably have the opposite effect. Malema is the mascot for #paybackthemoney, mostly because many people’s distaste for Zuma is greater than their aversion to him.
So whether the EFF is planning to interrupt the president during the biggest event on the Parliamentary calendar or threatens to go naked if their overalls are not allowed in Parliament, he is applauded.
As soon as Zuma answers the question about the Nkandla upgrades, Malema’s current appeal outside his core constituency diminishes. Luckily for him, Zuma seems only too willing to keep up his popularity stakes.
At a meeting with editors in Pretoria on Sunday, Zuma reportedly said that calls to pay back the money were a political ploy, and claimed none of the investigation reports on Nkandla found that he had squandered money. “Not a single one has said Zuma squandered money,” the president as quoted by City Press. “That serious allegation has never been made.”
This is despite Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report stating:
“It is my considered view that the president, as the head of South Africa Incorporated, was wearing two hats, that of the ultimate guardian of the resources of the people of South Africa and that of being a beneficiary of public privileges of some of the guardians of public power and state resources, but failed to discharge his responsibilities in terms of the latter. I believe the President should have ideally asked questions regarding the scale, cost and affordability of the Nkandla Project…
“His failure to act in protection of state resources constitutes a violation of paragraph two of the Executive Ethics Code and accordingly, amounts to conduct that is inconsistent with his office as a member of Cabinet, as contemplated by section 96 of the Constitution.”
It is mindboggling why the president thinks Madonsela recommended he should pay back the money if there was no wastage of taxpayers’ money.
Zuma believes EFF voters should appeal to their party to behave. He said MPs should act honourably and voters should apologise for voting EFF because of their behaviour in Parliament.
But their behaviour in Parliament is perhaps the EFFs biggest selling point. For now. They are the talk of the town for as long as they can keep the pressure up on Zuma, and for as long as Zuma continues to misread the national mood on Nkandla.
In a typical example of gradual diminishing of expectations, President Zuma has since 2009 fed the country a steady diet of ever more disappointing State of the Nation speeches, so his bar is set relatively low. Malema has managed exactly opposite – with his every move so far he managed to raise the stakes in a political theatre that is South Africa today. He has delivered a rolling spectacle that dominated the national conversation ever since he and his red beret entered the game.
On Thursday, Zuma and Malema’s paths will cross again. Ironically, the great expectation for Thursday has to be on Malema, not Zuma. If Malema cannot deliver on his promise of the best tightrope performance yet, he will lose his greatest asset: the nation’s attention, which, so far, has been essential to his meteoric rise.
While Thursday’s stakes are high, both players are skilled at their respective games. Whatever happens, it will be something to behold in the Parliament of South Africa. DM
Photo: Economic Freedom Party (EFF) leader Julius Malema (C) arrives to be sworn in as a member of parliament at the South African Parliament in Cape Town May 21, 2014. REUTERS/Sumaya Hishaml
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