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SONA 2016: The night of pain and circumstance


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Arriving at Parliament during a great state occasion nowadays is like walking through a war-zone. There are more police in the blocks around the precinct than anywhere else in the country. Barbed wire is rolled out everywhere. There is so much of it you suddenly expect an auto-bot to come flying through some rubble pursued by an angry Megatron.

We live in a country with a legitimate, democratically-elected government. My friend David O’Sullivan always used to say that he used to come to Parliament for the same event which was called the Opening of Parliament during the ’80s. That was when we were ruled by an illegitimate, un-elected government. Yet the security now is much tighter than it was then. It can only make one think that the ANC’s claim that it is with the people is disingenuous.

It looks as though the people are being kept out at all cost.

If that is complicated and confusing, try this. As I was walking across the red carpet on Thursday evening, I looked up the steps to the main entrance and I saw a person who looked a lot like Ivan Pillay. He who used to be the Deputy SARS Commissioner, until that confused complicated mess around what the Sunday Times called the “Rogue SARS Unit” forced him out. I thought I was wrong. It simply couldn’t be.

But it was.

In the press gallery I remarked to my colleague Ranjeni Munusamy, “Hey I saw this bloke who looked like Ivan Pillay.” She laughed and drew my attention to a seat across the chamber where Pillay was seated.

If my jaw hadn’t hit the floor by then, the company he was keeping certainly exerted strong downward pressure on my lower mandible. Put these names together and what do you get: Anwar Dramat, Robert McBride and Ivan Pillay; a group of people who have either been suspended and then drummed out of office or both. But my mandible had further to fall. The person sitting next to them was Jessie Duarte. THE Jessie Duarte, the deputy Secretary General of the ANC.

The only question more interesting than who the hell invited them is what the hell do you think they were talking about? Sure, all three of them have good struggle histories, and no doubt some historic links with Duarte. The trio, together with Duarte, looked slightly scripted to me. But to what purpose?

The political theatre of the night belonged to Julius Malema and his red brigade. It wasn’t just that they came in en bloc singing and jiving. It wasn’t just the way he showed up the lack of feeling on the ANC benches while he did it. It was the moment the judges arrived. Suddenly the EFF MPs all stood up, and clapped as loudly as they could. On and on they went, stamping feet and whistling. It was obvious who they respect and who they don’t. As someone with a taste for a political stunt or two, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was good politics, it got Nkandla right there in the centre, without a word being spoken.

The EFF followed this up with a rather obvious sit-down, during the national anthem. Yip, when the Die Stem part started. Red-clad MPs sat lolling in their chairs, arms folded, looking grumpy. Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder was unimpressed. As you would expect. Malema probably has more support on this than you might imagine, it’s pretty hard to construct a case to keep Die Stem in our anthem. If he can win the debate on this one, it would be a pretty big victory.

The disruption itself was inevitable. What was better about this year than last year, was the fact that there was no violence. But still, there are better places to be than the National Assembly when the EFF starts with its points-of-order. It’s simply unedifying. I get it, I get the point, why this is happening – surely some of the blame must fall on Zuma and the ANC – but it is no fun to watch. I’m sure Deputy Basic Education Minister Enver Surty agreed with me. He was lying back on his bench, his eyes closed. “God, save me from this” is what I read in his expression. He wouldn’t have been the only one.

We’ll draw a veil over the shouting and screaming; it will no doubt be played to death in every non-SABC news bulletin.

Watch: SONA 2016 – Day of protests turns violent

The speech itself?

One of the things that has changed in the National Assembly is the attitude towards the President. Even when Thabo Mbeki was letting people die of AIDS, and making speeches that concentrated on Baghdad rather than Baragwanath (to use Tony Leon’s criticism), no one would think of interrupting him. Neither would they jeer him. Now things have changed.

As Zuma said “Madam Speaker” from the DA benches came the jeer “I resign.”

Even by parliamentary standards, that was quick. Later, when Zuma said “I will now make a few points that will make a difference” he was met with “Like your resignation”.

If there is one thing that is contagious, that the DA has caught from the EFF, it’s that disrespect for Zuma.

By then, we were an hour in and Zuma was just starting. And, you know, it seemed like it would be the old days. A boring speech with not much in it.

But after five minutes I’d noticed something. Zuma was talking about the economy. Still. It took up almost all of his speech. I’ve never seen anything like it. In my experience, Zuma has almost always avoided the economy and high finance. He explained why a junk-rating would be bad, he went into some of the major problems and for someone who has not had economics as his happy place, it was surprising.

It would seem to suggest that the events of December have actually concentrated a few minds. Suddenly the economy is everything. And Zuma must have had no choice but to do it.

Of course, some of the promises we’ve heard before. More than once. His claim that state-owned enterprises are going to be run more effectively for example. The only way SAA will fly again is to get rid of Dudu Myeni. You simply can’t get around it.

And Zuma’s promise to implement the findings of a commission on SOEs doesn’t help either. It was Riah Phiyega who chaired that commission, and its main report didn’t actually made hard recommendations, apart from staying some of the entities could be consolidated. So not much hope there too then.

And his sudden bringing up of the idea of only having one capital has been discussed many times before. But it raises very complicated questions, and seems almost designed to get the nation talking about something that doesn’t really matter.

As I left the precinct, after all the post-match interviews and intense spin, something struck me. It was the fact that the ANC still simply doesn’t know how to handle Julius. While he was in full cry, with his members putting up their hands and stamping their feet, the ANC MPs had nothing. Baleka Mbete and Thandi Modise had nothing. They simply don’t know what to do. You’d have thought they would have found a way by now. DM


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