It was always going to be a bad day at the office for the ANC. The first day of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) debate had opposition leaders Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema take on President Jacob Zuma directly for the first time since the finance minister debacle and Nkandla backtracking in the Constitutional Court. It was their opportunity to inflict pain on Zuma and his party, and inflict pain they did. Maimane opted for an intergalactic attack while Malema carpet-bombed Zuma’s leadership with personal attacks and startling revelations. The ANC was left haemorrhaging and had little energy to fight back. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
South African politics is a fast paced drama with a perpetual stream of invective. It is difficult to keep track of who says what, when, with the earth perpetually moving under our feet. In a few months, the SONA 2016 debate will be sucked into the vortex where political speeches go to die. But on Tuesday, the words uttered by opposition leaders in Parliament cut deep.
Last year Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane ripped into President Jacob Zuma with his “broken man” speech. “You are a broken man, presiding over a broken society,” Maimane said. “You are willing to break every democratic institution to try and fix the legal predicament you find yourself in. You are willing to break this Parliament if it means escaping accountability for the wrongs you have done.”
In his reply to the debate last year, Zuma mocked and laughed off the “broken man” speech. He was riding high back then, with the ANC firmly behind him.
This year, the political milieu has changed significantly. Zuma has squandered his political capital in the ANC with his backpedalling on the Nkandla matter and endangered the country economically with his ill-advised decision to shuffle finance ministers in December. Disruptions and commotion at last week’s SONA showed that his weaknesses continue to empower the opposition and damage the confidence and standing of the ANC.
Maimane and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema had to hit hard, having gained leverage at the Constitutional Court last week. The ANC has been palpably restrained since then, opening the opportunity for them to go for the kill. Besides, this is an election year and Zuma remains their biggest campaign tool.
Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies kicked off the debate, trying to keep focus on the economy and contextualise the downturn in terms of global conditions. It was then Maimane’s turn to climb in, using the Star Wars prologue to introduce a new aspirational hashtag for Cape Town’s picnic revolutionaries.
“Planet Zuma” Maimane said was a place “in a parallel universe, far, far away from the lives of ordinary South Africans”.
“Planet Zuma is a place where a swimming pool is called a fire pool. It is a place where all the continents of the world fit into Africa,” Maimane said, mocking Zuma’s recent geographical gaffe. The firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister and government’s flouting of the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al Bashir were obvious targets.
“Planet Zuma is a place where a president can replace an excellent finance minister with a backbencher that nobody has ever heard of. It is a place where an international fugitive wanted for genocide is welcomed and given refuge,” Maimane said. “Let me be clear: we came to listen to the president out of respect for the Constitution and the office he holds. But we did not come out of respect for Jacob Zuma. We cannot respect a man who puts himself and his rich friends first while the people of this country suffer.”
Maimane said if Zuma were an honourable man, he would do the honourable thing and resign. “The president is not alone on Planet Zuma. Its gravitational pull is so strong that the entire ANC has been sucked into its orbit, and it cannot escape.”
It was Malema, however, who drew the most blood. He said his party refused to “legitimise a morally and politically compromised president of the ANC” by debating his SONA. “We do not recognise him due to his incapacity, lack of direction, association with criminal elements, unaccountability and pure disregard of the Constitution and the people of South Africa,” Malema said.
“We must not forget that we are in a country where the African majority continue to be slaves and suppliers of cheap labour to the white minority as cleaners, garden boys, domestic workers, car guards, petrol attendants, security guards, rock drill operatives, and everything that pays low wages.” He said the majority of black people in townships “live in a state of indignity and congestion”. “They live like pigs when they are alive and even when they are dead,” Malema said.
He then tore into Zuma personally and politically, saying he himself had been among the people who had “uncritically accepted so many lies, fictions and conspiracy theories” about the president. Malema referred to Zuma’s rape trial, saying he knowingly had sex with an HIV positive woman and later explained to the court that a shower would lessen the chances of contracting HIV. “This is the man who knowingly impregnated a friend’s child despite that he had many wives at home,” Malema said.
Surprisingly, this elicited no objection from the ANC, which could have protested about these matters having nothing to do with the SONA. The ANC MPs remained silent and Zuma appeared sullen.
Malema was again scathing of Zuma’s friendship with the Gupta family, recalling how one of the brothers had phoned Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula to inform him of his appointment. Malema once again apologised to former president Thabo Mbeki for participating in the campaign to recall him from office.
“I had a meeting with Mr. Zuma where he told me that he does not want to work with President Mbeki. I then led a charge for the removal of President Mbeki after that meeting,” he revealed. Malema had been the first ANC leader to speak publicly about the possibility of recalling Mbeki in September 2008. He has never before disclosed whom he had discussed the matter with.
Malema also revealed that Mbalula, now firmly ensconced as one of Zuma’s cheerleaders, had called him while undergoing belated initiation rituals in the mountains to advise him not to participate in the process to remove Mbeki. Mbalula appeared to be deeply embarrassed by the revelation, while other ANC ministers and MPs sat in stony silence.
After Malema’s tirade, he announced that he was leaving the House as Zuma was not a “legitimate president”. The entire EFF caucus followed him out. Speaker Baleka Mbete made an astonishing announcement as they left that she was expunging Malema’s speech from the parliamentary record. She did not clarify under which rules this was possible.
Zuma was derided by other opposition speakers urging him to step down, with United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa saying: “Give us a mandate, Msholozi, to handle your exit with dignity”. “The Nkandla issue has affected many people,” Holomisa said. “It has affected the trust of representatives in this House who have had to defend it.”
It was difficult for the ANC to fight back with the caucus bruised after being humiliated by events in Constitutional Court last week and the heavy fire from the opposition. Davies and Deputy Mineral Resources Minister Godfrey Oliphant tried to keep the line that while the country had economic troubles, it was on the road to recovery with new investments and efforts underway to stabilise sectors and reduce job cuts.
Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said the exchange rate and relaxing of visa regulations offered the opportunity to boost tourism to South Africa. He said his department was working with the Department of Home Affairs to implement the Cabinet decision to revise stringent visa regulations. “Tourism has become incredibly valuable treasure chest for our people,” Hanekom said.
It was left to Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to close the debate and do damage control for the ANC. While she chided the DA for having “weak minds” and debating people rather than issues, she also hurled accusations and insults. Sisulu called the DA’s chief whip John Steenhuisen the “esteemed chief clown” and said all that she heard from the opposition was “moaning and groaning”. She said due to the “banality” of their weak minds, the DA had created “Planet Zuma”.
Addressing DA national spokesperson Phumzile van Damme, Sisulu astoundingly opted to mock her birth in Swaziland rather than respond to issues she had raised in her speech. Last year, ANC speakers had been called to order in the House for similar xenophobic comments about Van Damme.
This is the situation the ANC has been reduced to, when a member of the Sisulu dynasty, many of whom spent years in exile in neighbouring states, has to resort to xenophobic statements in order to fend off opposition criticism. The ANC took a beating in Parliament, and still has another day of the debate to go before Zuma responds on Thursday.
Almost every speaker from the opposition parties reminded the ANC who had delivered them to the calamitous state they were in. Judging by their reluctance to counterattack and jump to Zuma’s defence, it seems that that hard truth has, finally, sunk in. DM
Photo: Members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leave the parliamentary chamber as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation address in Cape Town, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Schalk van Zuydam/Pool