Not entirely omniscient
21 February 2018 22:43 (South Africa)
South Africa

Another day, another Nkandla low in Parliament. Next step: Constitutional Court

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
    ranjeni munusami BW
    Ranjeni Munusamy

    Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having “been there and done it” – from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story.

  • South Africa
Ranjeni-Zuma-questions-chaos.jpg

There is one thing Nkandla hasn’t yet sullied: the highest court in the land. The state broke its own rules to enable the overpriced upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home. The issue has turned the African National Congress and members of the cabinet into a protection racket. Parliament has been turned into a place of pandemonium and ugly confrontations. On Thursday, another tumultuous day in the House provoked bitterness and hostility amongst opposition parties and exposed some harsh truths about the state of South Africa’s political leadership. Now the Constitutional Court has received an application from the Economic Freedom Fighters on whether Zuma has to comply with Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

There was a small window during the president’s question time on Thursday when it looked like there might be some civility in the National Assembly. Questions were being asked and President Jacob Zuma was answering – well, he was uttering words in response. Parliament had prepared for a volatile session with the new contingent of security personnel waiting outside the chamber to remove anyone acting in defiance of Speaker Baleka Mbete.

While the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had raised objections at the outset about their leader Julius Malema’s question being the last of the six the president was to answer, this caused only a short delay. So Zuma was able to answer all the questions on the order paper – albeit with constant disruptions and points of order.

But there was a brief moment when Zuma and Malema exchanged banter and smiles, with both in agreement that it would have been wrong for the South African government to have arrested Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in June. Malema, however, made the point that he did not condone the government’s violating a court order by letting Al-Bashir leave the country.  Zuma chuckled, saying they should talk about it.

It was a difference of opinion but expressed good-naturedly with an opening for robust but civil engagement. But then things deteriorated, as they normally do when Nkandla looms over Parliament.

Before it got to Malema’s question about when Zuma would pay back the money for undue benefits at Nkandla, there were other questions about the separation of powers and respect for the judiciary, South Africa’s role on the continent and diminishing foreign investment and business confidence in the economy. In responding to the supplementary questions, Zuma floundered, particularly on those regarding the economy. He was unable to provide straight answers on whether South Africa would sign a free trade agreement, on how government could improve the investment climate, the illicit flow of funds and on how to halt the haemorrhaging of jobs.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) accused Zuma of waffling instead of answering their questions. DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said: “The Honourable Hill-Lewis asked a simple question: 'Will South Africa sign the agreement, yes or no?' He didn’t ask for a waffle with cream and chocolate.”

Zuma seemed content to act as if he were ignorant of what is going on in his country. He astoundingly admitted that he was oblivious to the much-publicised allegation that Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko had told a meeting of police officers that there was corruption and bias in the judiciary.

Even more jaw dropping was an admission that he did not know about one of the biggest news events of the week, the withdrawal of Glencore’s mining licence. Zuma said the mineral resources minister had not briefed him on the matter. His retort to the howls from the opposition benches was that he could not be “like a sangoma” and know such things.

There has always been concern about the president being asleep at the wheel and the lack of firm leadership in the country. Of course nobody would envisage that the Presidency operated like a West Wing drama series with the president being woken up in the middle of the night and briefed on whatever international or domestic crisis was playing out.

The basic expectation of most South Africans, however, would be that the country’s president would know as much as the average citizen who listens to at least one news bulletin a day.

Malema gave Zuma a spectacular dressing down for knowing “so little about so much”. He said it was “so embarrassing” that the South African head of state did not know what was going on.

Zuma also reiterated his approach to the Marikana massacre in response to a question from the EFF about South Africa being a police state that kills people. Zuma repeated a statement he made a few weeks ago when he said that the Marikana mineworkers were “armed to the teeth” and killed 10 people in the days before the massacre. The insinuation in his response is that the police were justified in firing live ammunition at the workers, killing 34 of them.

In a way, it would have been more beneficial for the president and the African National Congress (ANC) if the EFF MPs had disrupted proceedings and been muscled out of the House. That would have drawn attention away from the answers Zuma was giving. Most ANC members sat in stunned silence, listening to the president bumble his way through the session.

Zuma was however brief in his response to Malema’s question on Nkandla – the question was premature as the ad hoc committee process was incomplete. He refused to say much more on the matter, causing a series of high-pitched tirades from EFF MPs about the president’s refusal be to abide by the public protector’s recommendations. Mbete tried desperately to quell the ranting but did not invoke the new rules to have anyone thrown out.  

A surprising series of heated exchanges between the EFF and other opposition parties also drew attention away from the excruciatingly poor answers from the president. EFF MPs shouted in fiery bouts, demanding to know when the president would pay back the money and prevented other opposition parties from being able to speak. At one point EFF secretary-general Godrich Gardee asked that Parliament’s new “bouncers” remove Steenhusien from the House.

The once cordial relationship between DA leader Mmusi Maimane and Malema dissipated with a fiery tirade from the EFF leader. This was in response to Maimane’s remark that the “old alliance between the ANC and EFF was back together and strong”. Malema lost his cool, attacking Maimane for voting along with the ANC on the new stringent parliamentary rules that allow MPs to be removed for unruly behaviour. “We don’t have any alliance with these people! You voted with them for members to be beaten up,” Malema shouted while Mbete tried in vain to restore order.

The EFF appears to be angered by other opposition parties’ participation in the ad hoc committee process, which it boycotted, and consenting to the new rules to assert decorum in the House. While opposition parties including the EFF had co-operated on a number of issues of common interest in the past, it seems relations have now soured.

EFF MPs even shouted down United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who attended and gave his blessing to the launch of the party in 2013. When he did speak, Holomisa made perhaps the most salient suggestion to the president, that he should take Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on judicial review as this was the only legally sound way to challenge her recommendations. Holomisa said Parliament could not act as an appeal authority.

But Zuma said Madonsela reported to Parliament and thus the ad hoc committee process was unfolding. “She has made recommendations. One of the mistakes some members are making is to believe she made a judgment. It is not a judgment. It is a recommendation Parliament must deal with, and Parliament is seized with the issue.”

And so Malema had the final word: “It is clear we will never get an answer from the president. Let’s meet in court.” He revealed after the session that the EFF lodged an application in the Constitutional Court earlier on Thursday to compel Zuma to abide by the public protector’s recommendations. “The EFF is confident that this is an important step since Parliament has been rendered toothless by an ANC speaker who refused to demand that Zuma answer the questions put to him in a satisfactory way,” the party said in a statement.

The EFF said it had filed another application in the Western Cape High Court to challenge “the unlawful rule amendment adopted in a rush by Parliament through the collusion of the ANC, the DA and other opposition parties”. The party said the new rules authorise “common assault of Members of Parliament who refuse to obey unlawful and unjust rulings of the ANC speaker”.

Another day of tumult in Parliament ended with the ad hoc committee voting to endorse Nhleko’s report on Nkandla and recommending “all necessary steps are undertaken to ensure that the safety of the head of state and his family is not compromised”.

More money, more Nkandla, more chaos.

Even so, our president is not concerned. “The country is not going down. It is being governed responsibly. I don’t agree it’s going down because of me,” Zuma said during one of his rambling answers.  

Given his grip on issues afflicting our nation, it is not surprising he would say that. A more parlous state of affairs is difficult to imagine. DM

Photo: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma answers questions in parliament in Cape Town August 6, 2015. Zuma defended the decision to let Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir evade an arrest warrant and leave the country in June, saying on Thursday the wanted leader had had immunity as a guest of the African Union. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
    ranjeni munusami BW
    Ranjeni Munusamy

    Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having “been there and done it” – from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story.

  • South Africa

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