South Africa

South Africa

SONA: Shame of the Nation 2015

SONA: Shame of the Nation 2015

Protesters allegedly set upon with water cannons. Two senior DA figures arrested. The jamming of cellphone signal inside the National Assembly, to prevent those inside from communicating. The entrance of armed security forces to physically remove opposition MPs, some of whom were allegedly beaten. Any one of these incidents would make headlines on a normal day. There was nothing normal about the day on which the 2015 State of the Nation Address took place. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The day dawned sunny, but it ended with rain: a fitting metaphor for the course of events. The trouble started early. Both DA and EFF supporters were allegedly subjected to heavy-handed treatment at the hands of the police while they protested against the presidency of Jacob Zuma in the hours leading up to the address.

DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme claimed that peaceful protesters were set upon with batons and water cannons in central Cape Town, with riot police saying that they had been given “instructions from above” to remove the protesters “before the President comes”.

A video posted by van Damme to social media showed DA Councillor Shaun August being lifted and dragged by police before being arrested. The DA’s national spokesperson Marius Redelinghuys was also arrested.

Shortly before midnight, Redelinghuys tweeted: “I am being charged for public violence and will be kept in Woodstock holding cells pending discussion with legal teams”. The DA claims Redelinghuys’s greatest offence was to ask the police why they were manhandling protesters.

While the streets of Cape Town’s CBD were witnessing these extreme responses to protest, inside the parliamentary precinct on Thursday afternoon all was still calm and orderly. A band struck up; the red carpet was unfurled; a new statue of Walter and Albertina Sisulu attracted interest; camera crews prepared for broadcast.

The DA had indicated earlier in the day that they would not be participating in the sideshow of the red carpet, where politicians and invited dignitaries usually pose to mug for the cameras and show off fancy outfits.

“At a time when our country is in crisis, we are not celebrating this as a red carpet occasion,” DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane announced. The party’s MPs wore black, as a reference to the darkness Eskom’s failings is inflicting on the land. But MPs from other parties were decked out in the usual colourful finery, sharing the red carpet with local celebrities.

So far, so good. Until, that is, the first journalists to enter the parliamentary media bay, in the National Assembly, noticed something distinctly odd: a complete absence of any kind of cellular signal for any network. As journalists who frequent those pews can tell you, there is normally no problem with signal in that area, which is why parliamentary proceedings can be live-tweeted with ease.

It was almost immediately clear that something untoward was afoot, because normal signal could be regained down the corridor. As soon as one entered the perimeter of the National Assembly, though, it magically disappeared.

A ‘jamming’ box was reportedly visible to journalists on the other side of the bay, and parliamentary sources admitted off-record that the signal was being jammed. Senior members of the local media remonstrated with parliamentary officials, to no avail. There was a clear, deliberate attempt to prevent information leaving the National Assembly in real time.

Even leaving aside the Constitutionally-enshrined right to freedom of expression, journalists were particularly unhappy about this state of affairs because of the knowledge that if the parliamentary TV feed was cut – as it was in times of chaos last year – the tweets, photos and illicit video footage of the House from journalists would be the only information available to the public.

Out of desperation in the face of official intransigence on the matter, journalists began to chant “Bring back the signal”, brandishing their phones in the air. (It should be noted that it is normally unacceptable for journalists in the media bay to draw any attention to themselves during such events, and journalists had previously been subjected to a lengthy speech about the need to maintain decorum in the House, so these actions were highly unusual.)

journos cellphones

Photo: Before the speech, members of the media chanted for the jamming of signal to cellphones to stop. (Greg Nicolson)

The DA and the EFF soon caught on and took up the chant with relish. ANC MPs attempted to drown it out, first by clapping very loudly and then by chanting “ANC! ANC!” to cover the noise of “Bring back the signal”. By the time President Zuma took his seat and Parliament was officially in session, there was still not a scrap of signal with which to inform the world about what was happening in the National Assembly.

zuma ramaphosa

Photo: Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa before the speech and interruptions. (Greg Nicolson)

And so it came to pass that the first point of order of the day was raised not by the EFF, but by the DA. DA chief whip John Steenhuisen rose to request that Speaker Baleka Mbete instruct “whoever responsible” to “turn off that [jamming] device”.

Mbete responded, with no apparent urgency, that they would ensure that Parliament’s secretary followed up the matter. It was clear that there was a disconnect between the seriousness with which the opposition and the media viewed the issue, and the seeming casualness with which some members of the ruling party greeted it. Deputy Minister in Presidency Buti Manamela joked that perhaps the problem was that people had run out of airtime.

The DA’s Maimane threatened to take Parliament to court. The FF+’s Corne Mulder remonstrated with Mbete, saying that it was unprecedented in 20 years of democracy that the media could not do their jobs in the National Assembly. Mbete again repeated that the secretary would look into it.

During the subsequent lull in proceedings, it was clearly visible that a note was passed from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to State Security Minister David Mahlobo.

Shortly afterwards, Mbete announced: “The scrambling has been unscrambled”. And, hey presto! Suddenly full cellphone signal was restored to the National Assembly.

With this disturbing incident dealt with, the show could resume as normal. With no reference to what had just transpired, President Zuma began his address. He had managed just a few lines, however, before the EFF’s Godrich Gardee rose on a “point of privilege” and demanded the right to speak to ask the President “when he is going to pay back the money” [for Nkandla]. For a few excruciating moments Zuma simply continued to speak over him, until Mbete intervened to remind Gardee that this was not a question session.

Gardee continued to press his point, asking if Zuma would be using “EFT, cash or e-wallet” to pay back the Nkandla funds. He was subsequently replaced by EFF leader Julius Malema, demanding to know “when is the President paying back the money as directed by the Public Protector”.

Mbete announced that she would not be allowing any more points of order – a seemingly arbitrary ruling, since the rules of Parliament do allow for members to raise points of order during joint sittings. Malema demanded to know which rule she was applying. Perhaps betraying her emotion by repeatedly calling him “Julius” (rather than “Honourable Malema”), Mbete asked him to leave the chamber.

Malema refused. Fellow EFF leader Floyd Shivambu demanded clarity on rules. “I am not here on your invitation,” Malema asserted.

Mbete, who appeared to be reading from a prepared script, announced that she would ask Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, together with the Usher of the Black Rod, to remove the men. When these individuals failed to budge the EFF MPs, the order was given to call in security forces.

zuma alone

Photo: While the EFF were raising questions to the President on Nkandla and were being forcefully removed, Zuma sat down and waited with a look of disdain. (Greg Nicolson)

They flooded in with previously unseen speed and efficiency, in stunning numbers: dozens and dozens of men in white shirts and black trousers (some jacketed), streaming down and blocking every entrance to the National Assembly. At the same time, members of President Zuma’s private protection force unobtrusively took up positions in front of the President to guard him.

Viewers at home will have seen little or nothing of the subsequent melee, since the parliamentary TV feed seemed to keep cameras trained largely on the Speaker. A video shot by the Daily Maverick’s Ranjeni Munusamy shows what happened next.

EFF MPs attempted to block the way of the security forces to the two main men – Malema and Shivambu – but were systematically ripped out of the way and dragged or carried out. Some security personnel seemingly immediately started landing blows on the MPs. EFF MPs fought back, using their hard hats as weapons – precisely the scenario envisaged by the ANC in the rules sub-committee meetings in recent weeks to justify why the EFF should not be allowed to wear hard hats in the House.

The attempts of the security forces to remove EFF Western Cape leader Bernard Joseph would have been comical if they had not been violent. Joseph, as described by Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak here, is enormous, a veritable mountain of flesh, and it took what looked like at least 7 men to carry him out, like Gulliver vs the Lilliputians.

Eventually only Malema and Shivambu remained, absurdly outnumbered, and they too were dragged out. ANC MPs erupted into celebration, clapping and ululating.

We don’t know what exactly happened to the EFF MPs outside. Talking to journalists afterwards, Malema claimed that 7 EFF MPs were injured and would be opening cases. In particular, he alleged that Reneiloe Mashabela was held down by 7 police and beaten in the face. A photo doing the rounds on social media showed a female EFF MP bleeding from the face:

injured EFF woman

Photo via Twitter.

EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi also told the Daily Maverick afterwards that once outside the National Assembly, MPs were told: “Don’t hit back, because you are assaulting police officers”.

With the EFF benches empty back in the House, the DA demanded to know who, exactly, the plain-clothed security operatives were. Were they members of the police, or of the parliamentary security services? The DA’s Steenhuisen said that it could not be acceptable that men with firearms were able to enter the National Assembly in this way.

Mbete responded that they had come in “on the instruction of the Speaker”, and that they were drawn both from Parliament’s own security team and from “security forces”. She could not say which was which.

In the face of this, after a few moments of ambiguity, the DA MPs walked out, leaving a jubilant ANC caucus.

Malema went on to praise the DA for their “courage”, but from the DA there was no return admiration. Helen Zille told journalists outside the National Assembly that what had happened typified a situation where people thought they were above the law – which applied to the President and the Speaker, she said, but also the EFF, who “don’t think they have to leave”.

mmusi helen

Photo: DA’s Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille (Greg Nicolson)

Zille said that while it was understandable that Malema would have to be removed if he refused to leave, “there is a big difference between orderlies taking him out” and the use of armed security forces.

Members of the EFF, meanwhile, appeared openly upbeat about events, despite injuries. “We must expose the limits of power,” Ndlozi said, grinning widely as he described having “moered” security forces.

“This is just the beginning,” Malema told a virtual scrum of journalists. “We are continuing participating in this democracy. We will continue to ask questions from the number one tsotsi.” The real state of the nation, Malema said, was when people who raise “legitimate questions” are assaulted.

Despite the bravado of the ANC caucus – who sang and toyi-toyi’d on Parliament’s steps for some time after the close of the event – there was clearly an understanding from the Cabinet that what happened in the National Assembly was, if nothing else, a PR disaster, already being picked up on by international media. In an emergency press conference after Zuma’s address, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe admitted that the spectacle of violence was “embarrassing” but insisted that such things happen worldwide.

“Our country is a constitutional democracy and we cannot allow such embarrassing scenes to go unhindered,” he said – but he was referring not to the use of security forces, but to the EFF’s showboating.

Despite Radebe’s assertions, for a few frightening hours on Thursday, South Africa didn’t feel much like a constitutional democracy at all. DM

Main Photo: Speaker of the House Baleka Mbete, left, ordered security to remove the EFF from SONA, leading to violence. She was flanked by Thandi Modise, chair of the National Council of Provinces. (Greg Nicolson)


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