South Africa

#SONA2017: The Night of Ultraviolence

By Marianne Merten 10 February 2017

Grim-faced ministers and MPs exited the National Assembly after violence marred the State of the Nation Address (SONA) - again. Gone was any pretence that it was business as usual at SONA 2017, maintained rigorously for over a week by Parliament’s political and administrative leadership despite clear evidence of unprecedented security measures and planned restrictions on the media. There was an unmistakably depressed atmosphere over Parliament. And a song by ANC MPs in honour of their party’s former president OR Tambo, to whom the governing party dedicated this year, faded quickly. By MARIANNE MERTEN

There were few kind words for Parliament’s presiding officers National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, also the ANC national chairperson, and National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson Thandi Modise. And not only from some of the opposition parties.

“If I were a speaker I would not have allowed that debate for an hour. I would have finished it in 10 minutes,” said ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe afterwards on the stairs of the National Assembly. But he expressed satisfaction about President Jacob Zuma’s speech and its emphasis on matters economic: “Our 12 issues (from land reform, structural transformation to jobs and poverty alleviation) are in the SONA”.

Mantashe has reason to be satisfied. Zuma quoted directly from the ANC lekgotla statement when he defined the radical socio-economic transformation he promised in his SONA as “… fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female…”

Photo: #SONA2017 Word cloud (By Haji Mohamed Dawjee)

But several opposition MPs described SONA as “nothing new” and “underwhelming”. The defining moment despite unprecedented security was the violent eviction of the EFF and the subsequent walk out by the DA to chants from the ANC benches of “Out, out, out” and catcalls of “racist” and “sell out”.

It was an unbecoming display, not stopped by the presiding officers, done in the full knowledge these words have long ago been ruled unparliamentary.

Earlier EFF parliamentarians had been pushed, punched, kicked and carried out by security personnel dressed in white shirts, who clambered over benches and desks. Zuma’s bodyguards, armed according to witnesses, surrounded him on the podium in the chamber from which guns are banned. And while the microphones on the parliamentary benches had been switched off on several occasions, Mbete was clearly heard saying “We see Honourable members use their hats to harm others”, in a reference to the EFF’s red hard hats.

Earlier EFF leader Julius Malema talked of cable ties issued to “21 policemen in white shirts, they came here in police vehicles…”  Holding up a cable tie, taken from one of the security guards, he also talked of “injections of biological weapons” in seeking the presiding officers’ protection. This was ignored by Mbete, who said it was hearsay and rumour in a ruling that again brought to the fore long-standing accusations of her bias.

“A caring Speaker, who cares about all members (of Parliament), would have immediately sanctioned a brief investigation to be made,” Malema retorted.

Daily Maverick was reliably informed of the arrival of police officers in civilian dress earlier in the day to take the places of the parliamentary protection service at the chamber. This appears to have been one of the additional security measures for SONA 2017, alongside at least one member of the military police armed with a R4 rifle in the parliamentary precinct, despite public assurances by Mbete and Modise a day earlier that soldiers would only take part in the pomp and ceremony.

The photo of an armed military police officer was tweeted by DA leader Mmusi Maimane, who in the wake of the violence in the House, said the party would go to court over constitutional violations and excessive use of force in the House. The DA leader, who initially called for SONA to proceed to discuss “the people’s business”, after the violent eviction of EFF parliamentarians said the Constitution has been violated.

It was a House divided that Zuma had walked into, and one where the mythologising of Parliament as a house of debate frequently falters amid the numbers game of the governing ANC, which holds the majority of seats and whose national chairperson is the Speaker.

But even if it was tense, it started out polite. The young imbongi was able to praise-sing for a few moments before being drowned out. The ANC benches rose for a standing ovation and chants of “ANC, ANC, ANC”. The EFF remaining seated, but then started chanting “tsotsie”. And the DA parliamentarians waving black flags in memory of the 94 Life Esidimeni psychiatric patients who died in the chaotic closure of that care facility.

Like the EFF, Mbete also dismissed the DA. The party’s request for a moment of silence, saying the start of next week’s SONA debate would be the time for such a moment. The DA nevertheless stood in silence.

Amid bruising volleys of points of order, in which the EFF repeatedly called Zuma a “constitutional delinquent”, the governing party’s internal factionalism and lobbying in the year of a national elective conference was brought squarely into the public spotlight amid Mbete’s rulings against the DA and EFF.

“That is exactly why you are not a candidate for the (ANC) women’s league,” Malema said in a reference to the league’s endorsement of former African Union commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as ANC president. “Even your own people have dumped you… exactly for that conduct… He (Zuma) used you and abused you he promised you you’d be president. You went home to slaughter a cow (in support of her presidential push).”

Mbete hit back, saying she would “not allow members to feel threatened because you have a campaign….” before reiterating: “I have called on the parliamentary protection services to come into the chamber.”

“There’s no problem. Kill me,” retorted Malema as the men and women in white shirts stood at the EFF parliamentary benches.

It got ugly. And it continued outside in the precinct, where rows of police in body armour, riot shields and helmets not only lined up in formation, but also blocked the precinct. But somewhere in the show of force cool heads prevailed, and the assembled police lines dissipated.

Photo: South African police clash with a journalist and Economic Freedom Fighter members during the State Of The Nation Address (SONA) by President Zuma in parliament, Cape Town, South Africa 09 February 2017. EPA/NIC BOTHMA / POOL

It was there Malema spoke in front of a giant television screen showing the DA’s walk-out. “Baleka (Mbete) has collapsed this Parliament into a department of the Zuma administration,” he said. “We stood up to tyranny. Whether we win regardless we stood on the right side of history.”

However, a number of journalists, including a team from eNCA, were prevented from doing their work as police blocked their way, despite repeated public assurances by Parliament, as police blocked their way.

Parliament’s comment on the evening’s proceedings? “The disruption of the joint sitting…, accompanied by physical violence in the chamber infringed on the rights and responsibilities of Members of Parliament and the public – in the NA (National Assembly) chamber and those wanting to follow the address on television and other media,” it said in a statement.

And the Parliament promised an investigation into the use of pepper spray in the public gallery, which it described as “a security breach”.

Yet Daily Maverick has been reliably informed, police officers in civilian clothing but with accreditation tags marked SAPS, were in force alongside uniformed police in the public gallery.

This deployment was one of the instances of kragdadigheid on display on the day in a precinct cordoned off from the rest of the city by barricades and notices saying: “You are now entering a restricted area. Persons who enter here are subject to searches”.

And so it was along ghostly empty streets the military parades marched and performed, with no-one to actually watch except the deployed police and other security services personnel. And inside the parliamentary precinct Zuma was driven past the civilian guard of honour. In words of another infamous president, SAD!

About 90 minutes after the scheduled 19.00 start, in the House it was third time lucky for Zuma at the podium. “Finally”, he said, followed by his trademark giggle, the same that was heard over the sound system as the EFF was forcibly removed. DM

Photo: Security officials remove members 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/SUMAYA HISHAM / POOL


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