He giveth and he taketh away. On the same day President Jacob Zuma playfully told journalists to “just forget” about the rumours of a reshuffle of his Cabinet, he made a surprise announcement that he was employing 441 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to help the police “maintain law and order” at the Opening of Parliament on Thursday. Opposition parties have reacted with shock and outrage, claiming this was a “show of force”, the imposition of “martial law” and a “declaration of war”. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
At 8:12pm on Tuesday, the Presidency issued a statement under the heading: “Employment of the SANDF during the Opening of Parliament”. It read:
“President Jacob Zuma has authorised the employment of members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for service in co-operation with the South African Police Service (SAPS) to maintain law and order during the Opening of Parliament where the President will deliver the State of the Nation Address 2017. Four Hundred and Forty One (441) members of the SANDF will be employed together with SAPS for the period of 05 February to 10 February 2017.”
It means that by the time the statement was issued, the army should have been on the streets of Cape Town for two days already. It begs the question: What in the world has happened to warrant such an extraordinary measure?
While recent State of the Nation addresses saw protests by civil society groups and opposition party members outside Parliament, there has been no indication of planned demonstrations at this year’s event. The only mass showing in the city on the day, in fact, is a “people’s assembly” being arranged by the ANC itself – in support of the president.
Earlier on Tuesday ANC national executive committee member Fikile Mbalula told a media briefing that the party was preparing for a gathering of about 30,000 people at the Grand Parade in Cape Town. After delivering his address to Parliament, Zuma would do a “meet and greet” at the ANC’s “people’s assembly”. This event is obviously to affirm support for Zuma after he had been tormented by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) at the two previous State of the Nation addresses.
But the prospect of the ANC throwing a mass party to applaud his State of the Nation Address (SONA) was apparently not enough to create a comfort zone for the president. In addition to the reported 6,000 members of the SAPS deployed to secure the precinct around Parliament, Zuma decided that 441 soldiers were needed to “maintain law and order” – a term straight out of the apartheid state of emergency playbook.
Zuma has previously deployed the army internally in political violence hotspots during elections and as part of Operation Fiela, supposedly to restore stability after the outbreak of xenophobic violence in 2015. Between five and six hundred soldiers were deployed at the height of Operation Fiela to assist the police in conducting raids on foreign nationals.
The Presidency has not explained what prompted the decision to deploy the army to the Opening of Parliament. While the military is normally present at the event for ceremonial purposes, opposition parties say it is highly unusual to turn Parliament into a militarised zone. The deployment adds to the outrage over planned restrictions on the media for SONA. Parliament has tried desperately to counter reports that journalists will be restricted to a “media square” in the precinct.
The deployment of the military has now led to a new explosion of outrage.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who served as the military leader of the former Transkei, said Zuma’s decision was an “abuse of power” and a show of force.
“This is simply paranoia,” Holomisa told Daily Maverick.
The EFF said in a statement that the military had no place in the maintenance of law and order.
“It must be seen as the declaration of war on citizens, which means Zuma is planning to murder those he disagrees with at the SONA.”
“We call on members of the media to defy any and all unjust regulations designed to undermine their freedoms of movement and of the media. They too have a duty to undertake their journalism with full constitutional activism as citizens and human beings with human rights,” EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said.
“We further call on SANDF members to defy unjust orders from a criminal president. They must refuse to be turned against the people; they must instead turn their guns against Zuma!”
Ndlozi told Daily Maverick that the deployment meant that there would be more than one soldier to each of the 400 Members of Parliament.
Democratic Alliance chief whip John Steenhuisen said they were seeking an urgent meeting with the Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete over the military’s presence at SONA.
“This move by the president should be seen in the context of his recent desperate attempts to ensure that he is protected from the criticism his presidency is deserving of, including his latest stunt of addressing an ANC rally at the Grand Parade immediately after the SONA,” he said in a statement last night.
“Our message to President Zuma tonight is clear: no number of SANDF soldiers will deter us from holding you accountable in Parliament this week, or any other day of the year. We will not be intimidated,” said Steenhuisen.
He told Daily Maverick that the deployment was tantamount to “martial law” and “completely over the top” as the military had not even been present at the Opening of Parliament during the time of “PW Botha’s security state”.
The anti-Zuma lobby group Save South Africa also reacted with anger. Lawson Naidoo, who speaks for Save South Africa and the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, said the president is meant to deploy the army with the concurrence of Parliament. He said Parliament ought to be taking the lead on the arrangements for the SONA as it was a parliamentary occasion. He said the measures by the presidency resembled events two years ago when the State Security Agency “took over” the organisation of the event.
Political analyst Professor Richard Calland said the deployment was extraordinary as there has been no indication that the SAPS could not cope with their duties of securing the Opening of Parliament.
This year’s SONA was likely to have less commotion in the House compared to the past two years. The EFF had pressured Zuma in 2015 and 2016 about paying back the money for the upgrades at his Nkandla residence. Zuma has now reimbursed the state for a “reasonable” portion of the upgrades.
On Tuesday, Zuma told journalists in a doorstop interview to “just forget” about the growing speculation about a Cabinet reshuffle. “I don’t know. Since last year, this speculation has been there but it has never happened. Just forget about it. I will tell you when I want to tell you.”
This would temporarily assuage fears about a mass purge from the Cabinet, with the finance ministry still in the crosshairs, which could again create instability in government and the economy.
But his decision to send the army to this year’s SONA opens a new distraction from his speech and a new issue to torment him on.
Zuma is really his own worst enemy. DM
Photo: Forgive us, Mr Rambo.
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