It’s a curious thing. Every year President Jacob Zuma is pummelled by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) before he can deliver the State of the Nation Address (SONA) and then gets walloped for two days by other opposition parties during the debate on his speech. As if strengthened by the beating, he then emerges stronger in his reply to the debate. Zuma’s speech on Thursday showed he at least heard some of the concerns expressed. And he was able to maximise of the news of the day, warning that government is prepared to act against market abuse, price fixing and collusion in the private sector. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Amid the mayhem in Parliament last Thursday night, something peculiar happened that not many people noticed. When the “white shirts”, as the parliamentary bouncers are known, rushed into the house, a huge contingent of presidential protection officers filed in and assembled around Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, most of them around the president. This has, of course, happened before.
When the fight between the white shirts and the EFF began, Zuma’s view was obscured by the VIP protection officers. He stood up at the podium so he could watch the violent scenes play out. Many people in the ANC benches also stood to get a better view. On the opposite side of the House, many MPs had to scramble to get out of the way of the mass brawl.
From the gallery above and right around the House, people watched in astonishment and horror as the punch-up and wrestling ensued. But there was one person in the House who seemingly did not want to watch the violent scenes. While everyone gawked, he turned away.
Pictures taken by Daily Maverick from the media bay above show Ramaphosa facing backwards in his seat, his chin resting on his hand. Several ministers also did not stand to watch – among them Naledi Pandor, Gugile Nkwinti and Pravin Gordhan. Others like Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula stood then sat down.
In the frames showing the deputy president turning away, Zuma watches the fight as he leans on the podium, his right arm resting on the pages of his unread speech, his left hand on his hip. On Parliament’s audio feed from the night, Zuma’s distinctive chuckle can be heard as the EFF MP’s were muscled out.
Why did Ramaphosa turn away? Did he not have the stomach for it? Did he just prefer not to have the violent images in the National Assembly imprinted in his memory? Was there perhaps something at the back of the House that caught his attention? What could the explanation be for such odd behaviour?
Could it be that Ramaphosa was being presidential by refusing to watch the scenes with morbid fascination?
But who knows what “presidential” means anymore? Donald Trump has set the bar so low that anyone who does not tweet manically, overusing capital letters and exclamation marks, and rant incoherently could qualify as being “presidential”. In just the past few days, Trump’s bizarre comments about the Middle East at a joint briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoherence, lying and bullying at a media briefing on Thursday revealed derangement that is beyond the pale.
So South Africa can at least be grateful that we are not stuck in a vortex of lunatic tweeting by our leader, and that our way of life is not under assault by fascists acting as the president’s advisors. There is just the small matter of our state being captured by the president’s friends.
But, as last week’s SONA proved, Zuma is haunted by scandal and his administration is hampered by implementation failure.
Last Thursday, he watched impassively, laughing occasionally, as EFF members insulted him, called him a “tsotsi”, a thief and a “constitutional delinquent”. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he also listened quietly as members of the opposition eviscerated him and his party. For any normal human being, this must hurt. It must sting for Zuma to listen to people more than half his age, such as Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, call him “an enemy of the people”.
Somehow, Zuma gets emboldened by the battering. As was the case last year, Zuma’s performance in the reply to SONA debate was much sharper and he owned what he was saying. It is perhaps the way the SONA is compiled that makes it cumbersome – even more so when he reads it. Each government department supplies a section to the speech and it is then melded with the resolutions of the ANC’s January lekgotla. What emerges is a long-winded, lumbering speech that everyone, including Zuma, suffers through.
It was made even worse by the fact that Zuma had nothing substantial to announce last week.
In his reply on Thursday, the president seemed to be more in touch with what he was saying. He began by saying the death of psychiatric patients in Gauteng was “deeply painful for the country and should not be used for political gains”. Unlike his usual speeches, he started on the right note and was therefore able to hold people’s attention.
He then went on to speak about the upheaval in the House at the SONA. He has complained about the EFF’s conduct in the past but this time he took note of the impact of the violence on the people of the country and one little boy, an imbongi, who had hoped to bask in the glory of the occasion that night.
“The majority of Members of Parliament understand the serious responsibility that they have been entrusted with and conduct themselves in a manner that gives hope to South Africans. However, some MPs have decided to treat this august House like something worse than a beerhall,” Zuma said.
“The conduct we saw in this House traumatised millions of South Africans, as well as 12-year-old Given Lubisi, who came here to impress Members of Parliament and the nation with his artistic skills. Let me extend a warm welcome to Given, who is my special guest today.”
A beaming Given, in the same traditional attire, stood up in the gallery and waved.
Zuma went on to the theme of radical economic transformation, and although he could still not provide much detail on practical implementation, he was more resolute on the issue. He said naysayers wanted to “protect the status quo and ensure that the ownership, control and management of the economy remains skewed in favour of a racial minority”.
“This is a serious programme, and it will be implemented by government using the strategic levers that are available to the state. These include legislation, regulations, licensing, budget and procurement as well as broad-based black economic empowerment charters.”
Zuma really found his voice when he responded to the Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald’s complaint that the president had the habit of blaming the country’s problems on white people. “The time has also come for the president to say what he has against white people,” Groenwald said during the debate.
Zuma said affirmative action and black economic empowerment did not demonstrate hatred of white people. Going off script, he said: “It will be wise to disabuse yourself from the tendency that when we talk about land and those who own land, you think it’s because of hatred. Saying we hate whites won’t make us stop talking about the land issue.”
“How else do you describe those who own the land?” Zuma asked. “Let’s just find a formula to rectify the problem. We all need enough space to live together. This is not racialism.”
He made the point so emphatically that another imbongi (fully grown) began shouting Zuma’s praises from the gallery and had to be asked by Speaker Baleka Mbete not to participate in the proceedings. It is quite rare for Zuma to be interrupted in the National Assembly by someone praising him.
Zuma’s speech was also topical, referring to Wednesday’s dramatic revelations by the Competition Commission that 17 local and international banks might have been involved in manipulating the value of the rand since 2007. While the matter is still under investigation, Zuma reiterated that government was prepared to act against market abuse, price-fixing and collusion in the private sector in order to protect our country’s economy.
He said while the competition commission could impose fines on companies, the impact of such collusion was far reaching “as it distorts our economic system”.
Questions have been raised about the timing of the Competition Commission’s announcement in light of Zuma’s comments on collusion last week, including threatening jail terms up to 10 years. But corruption should be confronted irrespective of the timing and it was opportune for Zuma to raise the issue in his reply.
Zuma announced that a refurbished Home Affairs centre is being launched in Marabastad in Tshwane to replace one notorious for long queues, criminal syndicates, overcrowding, poor administrative facilities and other difficulties at the refugee reception centre.
“I am happy to announce that it shall be named after a distinguished South African with an exemplary track record in the promotion of justice, human rights, freedom and equality, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.”
It is well known that there is no love lost between Zuma and Tutu, a fierce critic of the president and the ANC. Tutu was particularly scathing about the ANC government’s denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama for his birthday.
Zuma is lousy at saying sorry but this is a well-intentioned gesture.
At this point, nobody can genuinely expect Zuma to be presidential or deliver a speech that would stop traffic. If he refrains from causing financial devastation, through dramatic, late night changes to his Cabinet, and does not hand over the nation’s purse to his friends, we can all breathe easier. And if it is possible for him simply to be aware of the enormous power he wields and not use it destructively or selectively to favour the clique around him, Zuma’s presidency might be able to limp along for a while longer. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma reacts before replying to the debate about his State Of The Nation Address (SONA) in Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 February 2017. The president responded to the debate in Parliament following the 09 February 2017 SONA. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
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