If President Jacob Zuma was ruffled by the violent chaos surrounding his 2017 State of the Nation Address, it was impossible to discern when he appeared before a cheering crowd on Cape Town’s Grand Parade directly afterwards. The event had been termed a People’s Assembly, aimed at exhibiting the strength and unity of the ANC in the Western Cape – but at points it didn’t quite turn out as planned. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Thirty thousand ANC supporters, coming together on Cape Town’s Grand Parade: a site redolent with meaning for the ANC for being the platform that first hosted Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison. That was the idea, anyway.
By the end of a long day, an ANC spokesperson conceded that their unofficial estimate of peak attendance at the People’s Assembly was 6,000 people.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula would go on to inform the loyalists who hung on till the end that “10,000 Minstrels” (traditional Cape entertainers) had performed at the event. That, dear reader, is what we now call an “alternative fact” – of Trumpian dimensions.
Buses began to transport party supporters in from noon, to a somewhat confusingly positioned event. The term “People’s Assembly” gave the impression that it would be a kind of mass political meeting; a chance for ordinary people to take stock of the state of the nation while the official version was taking place in Parliament down the road. Western Cape ANC leaders framed it as a “festival of ideas”.
It wasn’t that. Instead the event had the feel of a prayer service mixed with a music festival: cries of ‘Hallelujah!’ mixed with ‘Viva Zuma!’ The latter sentiment emerged the priority. In essence, the People’s Assembly seemed largely aimed at boosting the confidence of a president who knew he was in for a rough ride in Parliament.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t any political content, but what there was revealed a confusing schizophrenia between the notions of “ANC” and “government”. Flyers – seemingly printed by ANC headquarters – announced: “The ANC calls on its government to implement the following”, with a list of 12 “urgent tasks”. They included: “implement free higher education for the poor”, which anyone who’s been following the news for the past two years knows isn’t happening any time soon.
“Reclaim the land!” shouted a massive ANC screen next to the event stage: an exhortation to whom?
That the loss of Cape Town remains a particularly sore spot for the ANC was abundantly clear. The crowd was led in chants of “Phantsi DA phantsi!” (Down with the DA!), and “Come back Cape Town come back!”
T-shirts emblazoned with President Zuma’s face were the order of the day, in accordance with the imperative to display unity. A large contingent of schoolkids, bussed in by COSAS (the Congress of South African Students) went one step further, wearing T-shirts saying “Hands off Zuma the liberator!”
Photo: Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) are confronted by police ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces in Cape Town, South Africa February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Despite their ostensible support for the man of the hour, it didn’t take long for schoolchildren to tangle with security: creating the alarming spectacle of riot police squaring up with apparently serious intent against running schoolchildren who seemed mostly oblivious to the volatility of the situation.
Not all, though. A visibly scared Busiswa Kwezana, 18, hid in a doorway repeating: “I didn’t know it would be like this. I didn’t know it would be dangerous.” Like all the learners, she was still in her school uniform. “COSAS came to our school and said we must come and tell Zuma that fees must fall,” she explained. The ethics of bringing schoolchildren to such a fraught and militarized environment and instructing them to protest must surely be questioned.
It was the first crowd scuffle with police, but not the last.
When the parliamentary proceedings began to be broadcast on large screens set up for that purpose, the ANC supporters greeted the footage of opposition parties’ disruption with increasing annoyance. EFF leader Julius Malema, in particular, was the subject of mass booing and heckling.
As NCOP chair Thandi Modise instructed Cope MP Willy Madisha to leave the House, there were hoots of approval and cries of “Get out!” When the parliamentary protection services were subsequently called in to physically remove the EFF, the crowd went wild.
“This is terrible,” a steward sighed.
No sooner had the EFF been manhandled out of the National Assembly than a large chunk of the Grand Parade audience took off running towards Parliament, in clear hope of a confrontation with the ejected EFF MPs or their supporters. They were met once again by rows of riot police, who speedily fired smoke bombs to drive people back towards Grand Parade. A group of tourists inside a restaurant hotel were glued to the windows, gawking and fearful.
Once back near the Grand Parade, some ANC supporters continued to taunt police. There was clearly appetite for a confrontation, but in the absence of any obvious target – no EFF supporters around; nobody else around, really – the only option was the police brought in to defend the man they were there to support.
When President Zuma eventually embarked on his speech, the crowd thinned out rapidly. Organisers urged people to stay, promising the big prize: a stage appearance from Zuma after he finished his address.
Members of ANC top leadership – Mbalula, deputy secretary general Jesse Duarte, Treasurer Zweli Mkhize and State Security Minister David Mahlobo – duly filed on to the stage, after a slightly worried-looking recce from Mahlobo.
Mbalula served as the president’s hype man: “President Zuma was going to come here even if there were ten of you left!” he told his audience.
When the man of the hour made his appearance, he was treated to a rockstar welcome. His demeanour was, as ever, worlds apart from the stilted figure he cuts when giving formal speeches in Parliament. President Zuma appeared cheerful and relaxed, evidently more at home in front of this sort of rally than amidst the slings and arrows of Parliament.
Photo: President Jacob Zuma, flanked by Jessie Duarte and Fikile Mbalula, (Photo: Haji Mohamed Dawjee)
Speaking without notes, he thanked the audience for coming and said: “All serious South Africans listen to [SONA] because that’s when they will know what is the situation in the country”. Those who do not pay attention, Zuma said, “expose themselves”.
Zuma then delivered a more forceful, populist summary of the aspects of SONA relating to the radical transformation of the South African economy.
“We, the blacks, are a majority but we have very little to do with the economy,” he said, to cheers. “Without the land, there will be no economic empowerment.”
2017, President Zuma told his supporters, is “the year we need to change our lives”.
What would a Zuma rally be without his theme song? The president launched into a cheerful performance of Umshini Wam’ before eventually being persuaded off stage by his handlers. It didn’t take long for the crowd to disperse. DM
Main photo: ANC supporters boo Julius Malema at Grand Parade. (Photo by Leila Dee Dougan)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine