The second day of Parliament’s post-SONA debate brought no less than two political apologies, a President laughing less, a Minister defending the energy crisis, a battle for the soul of the Freedom Charter, and a whole lot of inter-party bickering. REBECCA DAVIS was there.
An unequivocal apology is a rare thing in politics, but one was forthcoming from the Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, on Wednesday. Mbete has been caught in a storm since journalists reported on comments made by her at an ANC event on the weekend referring to EFF leader Julius Malema as a “cockroach”.
The epithet caused controversy not just for its intrinsic offence, but because it was read by many as a clear statement of the Speaker’s bias: if she could be making such comments in her capacity as a loyal ANC cadre on the weekend, how could she return to the House during the week and claim to be presiding over its business bias-free?
Mbete has been absent from the National Assembly’s two sittings since, causing some to wonder whether her days as Speaker are numbered. On Wednesday her apology for the comment was delivered not in person but via the release of a statement from “Ms B Mbete”.
“I have been thinking long and hard about the remarks I made,” it read. “I have concluded that my remarks – all offending statements I made – were inappropriate. The manner in which they came across was unfortunate and regrettable.
I withdraw my remarks unreservedly. I apologise unconditionally, to South Africans, to Parliament and Honourable Julius Malema for any hurt or harm I may have caused.”
When the statement was read in the National Assembly by IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, some EFF MPs drew attention to the fact that it was not signed by Mbete, sparking mutterings that perhaps it was made under duress after pressure from ANC leadership. But Malema and his party subsequently indicated that they accepted the apology.
DA leader Helen Zille took advantage of the resolution to tweet that she trusted Malema would issue her the same apology, for having called Zille a cockroach in October 2010.
“I’m very sorry Madam…” Malema tweeted in response.
Two political apologies in one day: a strange and wondrous spectacle, even if cynics will doubt the sincerity of either.
This spirit of reconciliation failed to spill over to the House’s general proceedings, however. By the time acting Speaker Cedric Frolick forcefully called the day’s business to a close, half the EFF MPs had been on their feet gesticulating at the ANC, with Malema bellowing “I’m not scared of you!” at Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.
Matters began more sedately, with the invocation of the ANC’s holy text.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: the foundation girding ANC policy at the moment is a return to the principles of the Freedom Charter, adopted at the ANC conference in Kliptown 60 years ago. Where the National Development Plan (NDP) used to be the constantly-cited touchstone of ANC policy, the Freedom Charter is currently usurping that role.
References to the Freedom Charter have been made by virtually every ANC speaker during the two-day post-SONA debate, though bits of it appear to be assuming greater priority than others. In particular, the stipulations that “the people shall share in the country’s wealth” and “the land shall be shared among those who work it” are those being appealed to most significantly.
It was, for instance, the Freedom Charter which was cited by ANC MP Zukiswa Rantho as justification for why state-owned enterprises like Eskom should not be privatized. “The people can only govern through state ownership,” Rantho said. “The people can’t govern under private ownership.”
Unfortunately for the ANC, the EFF also know their Freedom Charter back to front, and have been consistently drawing contrasts between the precepts of that Charter and actual ANC policy. It is the Freedom Charter, after all, which calls for the nationalization of banks and mines as per proposed EFF policy: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole”.
Addressing the House on Wednesday, the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu cited other aspects of the Freedom Charter currently going unfulfilled, such as labour regulations including a 40-hour working week and a national minimum wage.
But the ANC’s Deputy Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Bheki Cele, was on hand to discourage “the throwing around of the Freedom Charter as a political football”. It is, he reminded the House, a “very serious document”.
Don’t touch the ANC on their Freedom Charter; or, indeed, on their power stations. It was the ANC’s Rantho, again, who called on South Africans to “defend Eskom from liberal attacks”.
Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown, who currently helms surely the least popular government department, defended the country’s power problems with greater finesse.
“The main problem is not that we do not have enough generating capacity,” Brown said. “As I have said in this House before, when all our power stations are up and running at the same time, we have much more electricity than the very highest level of demand in any year.” The country’s reserve margins, when power stations are operating optimally, are at 15% – globally considered “an acceptable level”, Brown said.
This is, of course, of scant consolation when power stations are not all up and running.
Brown said that emergency repairs on the Majuba power station have now ensured that Majuba can provide “full power at the morning and evening peaks and an average of 85% power during the day”. There is a “procurement process” underway to replace a failed boiler at the Duvha power station. When the Medupi, Kusile and Ingula power stations come on line, we can look forward to an additional 10,000 MW – at some point between June 2015 and May 2020. Eskom is also working with private sector power producers, and will be receiving a “massive equity injection” from June.
Until all this maintenance, fixing, building and procuring comes to fruition, however, Brown essentially wants us all to band together, switch off all our stuff, pay our bills and stop moaning.
“We all need to pull together on energy,” she concluded.
President Jacob Zuma, widely pilloried for his fits of amusement in the House recently, sat more impassively on Wednesday. As Ranjeni Munusamy noted, ANC speakers in the House on Tuesday could muster only muted, half-hearted defences of the leader metaphorically torn apart by the DA’s Mmusi Maimane.
Perhaps a team talk galvanized them in the interim, because on Wednesday a number of ANC speakers came back with guns blazing in Number One’s defence.
The high point of absurdity in this regard came when the ANC’s Chief Whip in the National Council of Provinces, Hunadi Mateme, told the House that she would not be surprised if Jacob Zuma was “canonized” after his second term.
Mateme did not shy away from wading into the Nkandla saga, either. “The pay back the money campaign must be unpacked and seen for what it is,” she said. “There may be [Nkandla] features which are not security-related at the President’s house. These features have to be identified or, if they have been identified, have to be costed…When the above are known, then and only then will invoices be directed to people concerned. I want to believe that the principle of invoices obtains even in the business of the woodwork world.”
Zuma’s second-most energetic bodyguard on the night was ANC MP Bongani Mkongi, who took Maimane’s “broken” metaphor of the previous evening and stretched it well past breaking point. Both Maimane and Malema were, he said, “broken young black men” whose “only mission is to break the personality of the head of state. They are obsessed with one man”.
Turning to Zuma, he pronounced comfortingly: “You are not broken. You are a solid man.”
It was heavyweight Blade Nzimande, however, to whom the ANC had entrusted the all-important sweeper’s role in the debate. Nzimande began by reading a letter from the DA thanking the Guptas for their donation, and continued in similarly fiery form.
After blasting previous speakers from the opposition, Nzimande gave his diagnosis of the root cause of the parliamentary friction: “What’s going on in this Parliament is essentially an attack on majority rule,” he said. “White liberals in South Africa have always been opposed to majority rule.”
Attacks on Zuma, Nzimande said, were merely part of a racist narrative about black incompetence. The fourth estate came in for a bashing too, with sections of the media dismissed as “an extension of the opposition”. (At this point DA heckles of “Karima Brown” were faintly audible.)
But he saved his most damning condemnation for the EF Fighters. “I want to give some revolutionary advice to the EFF,” Nzimande said. “Do not start a journey when you don’t know where it will end”, adding that the violence-soaked history of the country should give the EFF leadership pause for thought.
This “advice” was interpreted by the EFF as a threat, and the evening ended in something approaching noisy chaos.
On Thursday afternoon, President Jacob Zuma has his chance to respond to the sound and the fury. Will he muster something more substantial than a chuckle this time?
Most accurate assessment of events:
Acting Speaker Raseriti Tau: “Honourable Members, be honest with yourselves. You are degenerating now.”
Most cutting one-liner:
Blade Nzimande to the DA: “Never again wear black to SONA – unless of course you are in mourning for the end of white minority rule”
Best comeback to an interruption:
EFF MP to Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown: “Will the Minister of Loadshedding take a question?”
Brown: “When she enters the room”
Most bizarre insult:
“Potassium Permanganate!” – EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, referring to Justice Minister Michael Masutha, seemingly because Masutha was wearing purple. DM
Photo: The inimitable Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, was on fire on Wednesday. (GCIS)