If last year’s opening of Parliament is anything to go by, an eventful day was avoided on Thursday: eerily quiet, cordoned-off streets in the Cape Town CBD, and heavy security in the form of policemen, soldiers and perhaps a few nyalas and the army’s visible presence and tanks characterised last year’s occasion. There would have been protests by the EFF, perhaps a rally by the ANC, some stun grenades, tear gas, and perhaps even blood.
There would have been heckling in the National Assembly, and almost all the members of the opposition would have been thrown out. President Jacob Zuma would have droned through his speech, and some MPs would have found solace and, perhaps, safe haven, in sleep. Some analysts would have maybe cared for Zuma’s promises on government business, and maybe he would have said his final goodbyes.
As it were, except for the drought, the city was pretty much business as usual. Those from elsewhere who jetted in especially for the State of the Nation Address were scrambling to find flights back. Others just rolled with the parties at Cubana or at some of the diplomatic get-togethers that are usually hosted at this time.
The last-minute announcement of the postponement on Tuesday meant it was too late for the British High Commission, which usually stages a prime event on the eve of SONA at the local official residence in Bishopscourt.
It became clear that now, even in the most diplomatic of diplomatic circles, the fact that Zuma will be history soon is openly anticipated.
British High Commissioner Nigel Casey, who has been in South Africa since April and who was to host the event for the first time, said he was happy to be in the country at a time when the “winds of change are blowing”, much like the last time he was here as a humble press officer, during former president Nelson Mandela’s time.
Even though this possibly encompassed his later reference to the Brexit process, due to happen within the next year, almost everyone would have had Zuma on their minds.
When he mentioned that the South African president (whom he didn’t name) was expected at the Commonwealth Heads of State meeting due in April, the guests – which included politicians across the spectrum, ambassadors who came to attend SONA, academics, business people and journalists – just laughed.
“You said it, not me!” Casey responded, himself now smiling.
The next morning, embassies were informed that their annual lunch with International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, planned for Friday, had been cancelled, as well as the Ubuntu Awards, a glitzy dinner for diplomats and celebrities, awarding the work of South Africans on an international field.
Journalists were told later in the afternoon that this was due to the postponement of SONA, which consequently meant “events traditionally hosted post the SONA have been affected”.
This is interesting, because on Wednesday, the day after SONA had already been cancelled, the Presidency saw it fit to issue a press release with a business-as-usual tone, saying Zuma would officiate at the awards.
The cancelling of the ceremony, in Madiba’s honour, could indicate that quite a bit has changed in the past two days, and that even Nkoana-Mashabane, who has in the past officiated at the ceremony, might not be in place by Saturday. Or course, it could point to nothing in particular at all.
At the same time, ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa’s party programme for Friday and Saturday has been cleared. Ramaphosa, with the rest of the party’s Top Six, was set to take part in build-up programmes for the party’s rally on the Grand Parade in Cape Town on Sunday, as part of the party’s Mandela centenary celebrations.
On Thursday morning, however, the ANC sent out a notice saying Ramaphosa and party chairperson Gwede Mantashe had been excused. Mantashe has a deployment in Mpumalanga, where the party is hosting its 106th birthday celebrations this weekend, and Ramaphosa, well, he apparently had “other pressing commitments”.
Ramaphosa remained in Cape Town, however, on Thursday morning to address the ANC’s caucus as leader of government business. It’s reported to have been an unusual one, because party caucus meetings usually only start after Parliament’s officially been opened.
Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu’s office denied reports that Ramaphosa told ANC MPs that Zuma would resign in the next day or two, and that he would not be granted immunity from prosecution.
“The reports are false and the intension [sic] behind them is to negatively disturb the fruitful and constructive engagement between the President of the ANC and the President of the country around the question of transition,” the statement by spokesperson Nonceba Mhlauli read.
Caucus meetings being closed affairs, not many more details were volunteered.
It does seem to indicate, however, that talks are still in a sensitive stage and that they could go anywhere. Party treasurer-general Paul Mashatile himself was, for instance, made to eat humble pie after assuring investors at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town on Tuesday that Zuma would be gone after the party’s national executive meeting on Wednesday. This meeting was cancelled after what seemed like fruitful talks between Ramaphosa and Zuma about the “transition” issue, and Zuma stayed put.
Both Ramaphosa’s and Zuma’s staff shipped out of the Mother City on Thursday because their principals were done with business there. What they’ll be doing back in Gauteng … well, possibly not even a Top Six cadre could safely venture a guess about that. DM
Photo: Forgive us, Bob!
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