South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: #SONA2017 – Democracy ends with a flash-bang, not a whimper

By Richard Poplak 9 February 2017

South Africa has got used to a State of the Nation Address that descends into a large-scale brawl. But this year was different – more bitter, more violent, with no hope of an outcome that will move the country forward in the short term. We are now, finally, in the throes of a constitutional crisis of the worst kind – no one believes that the president believes that the Constitution is worth the paper it’s printed on. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Radical Economic Transformation? Land expropriation? Other policies cribbed from the opposition? Bring it on, ANC. But see, one way not to usher in much needed structural changes to the economy is during a full-blown fucking meltdown of the democratic process.

Let’s begin with the skateboarders.

At 16:00, usually the time when running street battles form interesting whorls in the weed smoke of the locals, skateboarders hopped orange traffic cones, while 100 Economic Freedom Fighters marched up and down a little patch of Adderley. It was like a bad X-treme sports video, overseen by a police chopper, the pilot of which must have been struggling to stay awake.

Along Longmarket, ANC youth – actual youth, not Collen Maine-type “youth” youth – were blocked off as they approached. These kids cursed the name of Julius Malema, and basically did a better job of advancing the cause in five minutes than the ANC Youth League has in the past two years.

Whether or not the ANC youthlettes enjoyed the bagpipers wailing down Parliament Street, I didn’t ask. But the pomp, the soldiers with their machine-guns, the legions of luxury cars, the faux-Britishness of it all: if Frantz Fanon was still alive, he’d have performed a Chapelle-like stand-up routine about exactly this kind of thing. Were we celebrating democracy in a country in which many, many people died in order to do so?

Or were we lampooning it?

Inside the precinct, snipers watched over the red carpet, MPs dribbled in, and the press was corralled into their little open-air pigpens. A military chopper did circles above us. President Zuma arrived, and before he could make it up to the podium, the 21-gun salute popped off – a premature ejaculation of cacophony.

“Fok,” said a cop, “someone’s head is gonna roll for that.”

A Shakespearean portent of things to come, perhaps? Given how the evening proceeded, very probably. In what has become a typical manoeuvre, Deputy President of the EFF Floyd Shivambu stood up on a point of order. He held in his hand a grim black cable tie, which he insisted was just one weapon in the arsenal of SAPS personnel who were inside the National Assembly – a constitutional contravention of the rules of the House.

Speaker Mbete would not, however, rule on the basis of a rumour. Next up was Democratic Alliance Chief Whip John Steenhuisen, to cries from the ANC backbench of “fucking racist”, (he pronounced it Edimeni instead of Esidimeni) who asked that the House observe a moment’s silence for the 94 mental health patients murdered in Gauteng by a health department that was, I dunno, occupied with playing Candy Crush at the time?

The Speaker, while sympathetic, could not be moved on the issue.

It descended into chaos from there. Basic premise: Honourable Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Section 14 (d), 14 (l) and 15 (m) of the Constitution, when combined with the chorus from Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, and when drizzled in a light raspberry jus…

Obstructionism – but there was a point. Zuma last year was ruled by the Constitutional Court to be in breach of his oath of office regarding the Nkandla Matter. The National Assembly had also been found delinquent in its duties. Yesterday, during a phone conversation, EFF Spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi insisted that the party would not allow an illegitimate president to speak.

And so the whole deal descended into mayhem.

By the time the white shirts were called in to remove the EFF, the whole thing had become farce. Then, it became violent farce. Real punches were thrown, while outside in the sultry Cape Town night, riot cops assembled inside the parliamentary precinct to deal with 25 MPs in red overalls. They converged menacingly on the press, and blocked us from heading toward Poorthuis, the exit from the National Assembly.

After the EFF were kicked out, they kept the brawl going, digging up flagstones and hurling them at the white shirts. One Fighter hurled a perfectly decent hard-hat. Flash-bangs popped off to the south; the air was peppery. Wails rang out from an injured MP. Ndlozi was limping badly; the People’s Bae implied that the, um, People’s Package had been mismanaged unkindly.

When I caught up with Malema, he was heading for the exits. And now, I asked? “Now, we go home. We’re done here,” he said. But what had been achieved? Exactly what they promised. “We did not legitimise that man. We’re done.”

While the ultra-violence was unfolding south of Poorthuis, the DA had also managed to get themselves tossed, albeit with less fisticuffs. Party president Mmusi Maimane was fuming, and began yelling at the riot cops, Moses-like, to set the press free. Later, I asked him whether South Africa was in a constitutional crisis.

“Well, we’re in an ANC crisis,” he fumed. “Tomorrow, I’ll be in court to file a review. This will not stand. There were military here. There were SAPS here. None of that is constitutional. And the president continues to ignore constitutional court rulings against him. The problem is the ANC. The problem is Zuma.”

Then he, too, evaporated into the night.

The cops, about a hundred of them, remained.

Why was all of this foreordained nightmarish slapstick allowed to unfold? Why was this debasement of our institutions allowed to be played out live on TV, when the TV is controlled by the government? Why will policy, some of it necessary, some of it sound, once again be buried by the pageant of decay?

Fake democracies – which, these days, is almost all of them – are propped up by their ability to stage ritualised events: elections; the drafting of legislation (almost always sourced from special interest groups); parliamentary sessions; State of the Nation Addresses.

Because these events are central to the faking of democracy, the interruption of these events cannot be tolerated. They must therefore be policed, and eventually militarised, and those who cause disruptions must pay with their bodies, and eventually their lives.

Four hundred and forty one members of the national defence force were called to Cape Town for ceremonial purposes – that much is true. But the ceremony was the enacting of Power: the power to stage a ritual, despite the inevitable violence, stupidity, and shame. Ultimately, the enemy was not the EFF or the DA – of whom there were barely a collective 300 members on the ground. Nor was it ISIS, or some other unknown threat. It was you, Citizen.

The enemy they feared was you. DM

Photo: Security officials remove Mbuyiseni Ndlozi of the Economic Freedom Fighters during the State Of The Nation Address (SONA) by President Zuma in parliament, Cape Town, South Africa 09 February 2017. (EPA)