There was one redeeming moment of decency in this week’s acrimonious, disruptive State of the Nation Address (SONA) parliamentary debate. It was the return, as the president’s special guest, of the young imbongi, who last week was drowned out by the party-politicking racket of “ANC, ANC, ANC” from one side of the parliamentary benches and “tsotsi!” from the other. And so on Thursday, 12-year-old Given Lubisi smiled broadly from the public gallery, introduced by President Jacob Zuma ahead of his closing reply to the SONA debate. By MARIANNE MERTEN.
President Jacob Zuma ploughed through his prepared closing speech for almost 90 minutes in his now familiar tick-box style. Restated were the sentiments in support of the 2017 motto of radical socio-economic transformation expressed by the various ministers and parliamentary committee chairpersons who spoke during the debate. Opposition statements largely were rejected, most frequently by assurances that government was already doing much to address issues despite challenges.
Deepest condolences were expressed, for the third time, about the deaths of the psychiatric patients in Gauteng, with a rebuke to the DA without naming the opposition party for having called for a moment of silence before last Thursday’s SONA. “This matter is deeply painful for the country and should not be used for political gains,” said Zuma.
And it was this off-SONA 2017 focus that, alongside off-script comments on crime and land, that provided the real meat of the presidential response to the two-day parliamentary debate.
A key component was Zuma’s dig, without actually naming the EFF, at the red berets, who following their violent ejection from the House last Thursday have stayed away from the debate. The EFF’s argument, both politically and legally, is that Zuma remained an “illegitimate president”, protected by the ANC even after the Constitutional Court last year found he had violated his constitutional duty to respect, uphold and defend the Constitution in the Nkandla scandal.
Zuma’s comments are part of the narrative that Parliament, presidency, Cabinet and the ANC want to entrench: it’s not us, it’s them.
“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 beer hall,” said Zuma.
“We again appeal to those MPs and parties that have taken a decision to cause mayhem in the House to use available democratic mechanisms to express themselves, within the bounds of decency and decorum. As adults we can disagree ideologically, but we should not lose track of the national interest.”
A short while earlier National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, had issued her own statement with a similar narrative.
In the statement Mbete “urged those resorting to extra or non-parliamentary processes and behaviour to achieve their goals and the expectations of our people, to return to the legitimate representative democracy structures as prescribed by our Constitution”.
This sentiment echoes what the ANC parliamentary caucus said last Friday when it blamed the EFF, or “rampant anarchists”, and the “opportunistic” DA, for the SONA 2017 mayhem.
But the Speaker of the people’s House went a little further. “Parliament has also expressed concern about members of society including some faith-based organisations, who are jumping onto the bandwagon of criticising the presiding officers and Parliament’s handling of national debates without understanding the applicable regulations governing parliamentary processes.”
Parliament has now promised a public awareness campaign, and Mbete availed herself of what she called stakeholder engagement, not only about “the principles of constitutional democracy”, but also how the institution conducts its business. “This need is graphically reflected by some commentators, who jump onto the bandwagon without understanding the rules applied by the presiding officers, particularly during the recent State of the Nation Address presentation.”
The message: it’s not us, it’s them.
However, this aim might yet prove tricky, particularly for a presiding officer whose rulings and handling of sittings has incurred claims of bias due to her party-political role from across the opposition benches. And her presiding on Thursday proved interesting. “Uxolo Baba (apology, father),” said Mbete, employing the title widely used within the governing ANC for Zuma, to stop the president’s reply when an adult praise singer interrupted proceedings from the public gallery. However, she reverted to the official, and parliamentary, “president” when the DA brought a point of order regarding the not permitted participation from the parliamentary gallery.
Zuma got through his reply without a giggle. The key theme? Radical socio-economic transformation by his administration.
“The message of SONA2017 is clear and simple. The political freedom gained in 1994 must be accompanied by economic freedom for the black majority in this country, and the Africans in particular. We are not going to be apologetic about that,” said Zuma.
“We have noted, with shock, statements from some in the opposition benches that our radical economic transformation programme will not succeed because it has not succeeded anywhere else. That is a confirmation that some of our compatriots are determined to defend and protect the status quo and ensure that the ownership, control and management of the economy remains skewed in favour of a racial minority.”
The message: it’s not us, it’s them.
Zuma strayed from the official monotone, and off script, only when it came to crime and land.
And so he told Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald to drop his “tendency” of invoking racial hatred when government wanted to find “a formula” to redress land (mal)distribution.
“We are just stating a fact, massive stretches of land are owned by a few… If we don’t (correct this), we will not be working for our future that will be peaceful. It does not display racial hatred. We are saying this problem must be resolved… if we don’t it could explode one day,” said Zuma. “Some of us have been taught by our organisations not to be racist. We all belong here. We all need enough space to live here… to feel we all are citizens.”
Co-oincidentally, Zuma also referred to non-existing legislation, the yet-to-be-finalised Land Expropriation Amendment Act – the Expropriation Bill was passed by Parliament last year, but has not yet been signed into law – and claimed the population in rural areas was increasing even though Statistics South Africa indexes show increased urban migration over the past decade.
On crime he raised his interaction with police officers from Nyanga on the Cape Flats during this week’s surprise visit there.
“Part of what the officers told me at Nyanga was that they are faced with a problem… They arrest criminals, but the problem is that when they get to court, they are released. And once they are released they actually interfere with witnesses.”
It appears the rights of criminals are respected, but not the rights to life of victims and witnesses. This was problematic. “What does this mean? Is the weaknesses within our laws or the Constitution?” Zuma asked, saying he would meet his administration’s justice, crime prevention and security cluster soon.
After some 90 minutes it was done and dusted, except for a mini-rally of ANC Women’s League members, and youths, who the league said “are attending Parliament proceedings… to support the president of the ANC and give strength to all ANC deployed Members of Parliament”.
There was not a single police or traffic officer in sight at the gathering outside the main gates of Parliament, in a sharp contrast to last week’s SONA ring of steel around Parliament and unprecedented security measures in the parliamentary precinct, including military police armed with R4 rifles.
But perhaps a hint of the reason for such vastly different approaches can be found in Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s statement during the SONA debate. Announcing an investigation into the deployment of “some units” of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the defence minister maintained that the military has always been integral to the SONA ceremonies and other key national events where the SANDF plays multiple roles.
“It is unfortunate that in the past three years, we have all had to perform our roles under a charged political atmosphere,” she said in a reference to the EFF’s arrival at Parliament after the May 2009 elections.
It’s them, not us. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (R) receives applause from his party membres following his reply 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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