What happens now following the most dramatic State of the Nation Address in post-democracy South Africa? Will there be a calm after the storm, or are there new storms brewing? March could be just as dramatic a month in Parliament, with a motion of no confidence in the president, and questions for oral reply to both President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa scheduled. But will the reconciliatory tone adopted by Zuma in his reply to the SONA debate stick, or was it a flash in the pan? There appears to be a distinct hardening of attitude from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, while EFF leader Julius Malema wants to take the fight outside. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Whether it was President Jacob Zuma’s own plan or the work of behind-the-scenes strategists, the approach adopted in his reply to the 2015 State of the Nation Address (SONA) debate had the effect of defusing much of the political heat and tension. On Thursday, Zuma acknowledged some of his fiercest opponents in Parliament, responding to issues they raised in the debate and commending them for being constructive. This is not something we have seen often during the Zuma presidency but he could not have chosen a better time to step up and show leadership after a dramatic and divisive week.
It now remains to be seen whether Zuma can carry forward this approach when he appears before the National Assembly on 11 March to answer questions. The question about whether Zuma will pay back the money for non-security upgrades at his Nkandla home is certain to be raised, and if he responds the way he has been up to now, the chaos is likely to erupt again.
But if he is able to again treat the opposition’s concerns with respect and acknowledge the need for accountability on Nkandla, perhaps there could be a chance for the country to move past the debacle. Zuma has consistently dug in his heels on the Nkandla matter, insisting that he is blameless and shouldn’t have to pay for upgrades he did not ask for. The president who spoke in Parliament on Thursday, however, would recognise how much Nkandla is bogging the country down and make a much-needed concession. But he can also resort to type, and allow the controversy to flare up again.
But while Zuma adopted a reconciliatory approach to the opposition in the debate, and the media on the issue of the signal jamming, it seems ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe is on a different page. In a meeting with the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) on Friday, Zuma gave an assurance that the state would not scramble the cellular network again. “Rest assured that will never happen again and we did not know about it and we are condemning it. It was uncalled for,” Zuma was quoted by Sapa.
Sanef informed the president that editors had tried to raise the matter with government officials before the start of the SONA but did not get positive feedback. Zuma apparently told the editors that that should be criticised.
But writing in The Sunday Independent, Mantashe said the signal jamming “triggered an unusual reaction – even from experienced journalists”. “Critical, though, is that the media has subsequently developed a negative narrative, seeking to suggest press freedom is under attack and we are now in a security state,” Mantashe wrote. “We are of the view that journalists could have dealt with the matter in a far more mature manner considering, too, that they were not the only ones affected by that unfortunate incident.”
Mantashe went on to say: “The lack of maturity is demonstrable in the court order sought for purposes of ensuring full media access to Parliament. Surely engaging the presiding officers would have been an appropriate approach?”
It was not only the media in for a drubbing.
Mantashe condemned the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for remaining seated when the presiding officers, president and deputy president entered the House, but for rising and applauding when members of the judiciary filed in.
“In our view, this was a mischievous stunt aimed at tainting the judiciary, seeking to drag it into the party political sphere. It reflects the consistent tendency where the DA in particular, and now something regularly done by the EFF, takes the government to court on everything they lose in Parliament.
“These are actions against a majority government, what we have termed a liberal, anti-majoritarian offensive,” Mantashe wrote.
And then a deadly blow to whatever reconciliation might have been possible after the violent removal of EFF members from the chamber: “The removal of the members of Parliament who tried to stop the delivery of the SONA must be hailed as something that should have happened a long time ago and should continue in the future.”
It should be noted that it is Mantashe who determines the line of march for ANC MPs. So while there might have been a palpable cessation of hostilities after Zuma’s reply on Thursday, attitudes may harden again. Mantashe’s approach is consistent with what the EFF claimed prior to the SONA, during the failed intervention by Rhema’s Pastor Ray McCauley.
An EFF statement said McCauley’s mediation led to certain conditions being agreed to by Speaker Baleka Mbete and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, but these were vetoed by other ANC officials. “The EFF appreciates the work done by religious leaders, and proclaims for all to know that the genuine discussions and agreements we held with them were undermined by Gwede Mantashe controlled officials of the ANC,” the EFF statement read.
Mantashe seems to be again pushing for Parliament to swing an iron fist at the opposition parties, even after the uproar over policemen being present in the House and forcefully removing members.
“The state has the responsibility to defend all three spheres of government. In every court, police are present and defend the institution. That is not blurring the separation of powers but an act of defending the institutions of democracy.
It is hypocritical of the DA to dream of the state sitting on its hands when Parliament is under siege,” Mantashe said in his article.
From his side, EFF leader Julius Malema is indicating a broader approach to their onslaught on the ANC government. Writing in City Press, Malema said Parliament had been ineffectual against “the cancer that is paralysing all institutions”, but his party entry saw a voice of accountability rising and gaining “real public confidence”.
“For the EFF, Thursday was the beginning of a long journey of robust and uncompromising demand for accountability that will spread across the country,” Malema wrote. “We will link everything we do inside Parliament to a programme of mass action outside of it.”
He also indicated there would be mass gatherings outside Parliament and the provincial legislatures when critical issues were being discussed.
This will no doubt ratchet up the pressure, lead to heavier police presence and a tougher stance from the ANC. How this will impact on the programme of Parliament is difficult to predict. But the fight is way beyond just Zuma and Nkandla. For the most part, Zuma will not even be present when committee meetings and sittings of the National Assembly.
While there is likely to be some decorum for the presentation of the all-important National Budget by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene this week, next week could result in more explosions. A draft resolution for a motion of no confidence in the president is provisionally scheduled on Tuesday, 3 March and Ramaphosa is set down to answer questions the next day. Both these could see the battle lines redrawn.
Then, on Wednesday, 11 March Zuma returns to the parliamentary podium to answer questions for the first time since last August’s “pay back the money” protest. It seems uncertain now what impact these events will have on parliamentary politics and the national agenda, particularly because there appears to be a divergence in approach amongst the ANC’s top officials.
The only thing that is certain is that egos and political posturing continue to take precedence over issues of national importance, and therefore a lot more turbulence is heading our way. DM
Photo: South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe (EPA/JON HRUSA); South African president, Jacob Zuma (EPA/RODGER BOSCH/POOL); EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema (Daily Maverick/Greg Nicolson)