The voice of President Jacob Zuma came through the car radio as soon as I switched on the engine. “We should never rest until the vision for a better life for all is realised…”
I could not talk back to the disembodied voice that came through the radio. My tongue was still hovering delicately on the sensitive part of my teeth, following a dentist treatment a few minutes ago. Instead, I switched off as the news reader was announcing “That was President Zuma, speaking during his pre-Sona (State of the Nation address) business lunch, at Grand West Casino”.
In Johannesburg it was raining on Tuesday afternoon, a welcome soft rain, which like many, I hope will soak into the earth and raise the water levels of our dams. But grey, muggy and wet weather is as depressing as listening to a President whose voice increasingly betrays lack of interest in the job of serving the nation. Grey weather is as dispiriting as listening to leaders who lack imagination and ability to grasp the meaning of this era in the life of the nation. One is left with nothing tangible to chew on.
So, my mind switched off as I turned the radio off. But the venue, Grand West Casino, remained with me. Inappropriate! The word dropped from nowhere. Once there, I could not toss it out of my mind. The image of our President at Grand West Casino, speaking of ever widening inequality brought back a flood of other images. My minds’ eye, took me to the queues of people in early hours of the morning, waiting for their prepaid minibus taxis outside a casino in Queenstown. In their faces, the disappointment, regret, shame and yes, hope that “next time” it might happen. Except that “next time” never happens. “Next time” is often as hollow as politicians’ hot promises.
Gambling is addictive. However, most people are driven to gambling not by addiction, at least not in the first stages. Economic desperation, ever piling bills, rising food prices and an urgent need to augment meagre salaries pull people into gambling houses in the first place. And yes, some become addicted. Many are caught in a vicious cycle from which only a small number manage to fight their way back to a life without debt and addiction.
But gambling is no more dangerous than other forms of addiction, like addiction to power. Power is not less destructive to the individual who is drunk with it, or people and nations whose lives are directly affected by leaders’ addiction to power. Power is of course more than addiction and vanity. It is also means to access and sometimes pillage resources, for one’s benefit, patronage and crude corruption.
What was our President thinking, speaking at a citadel of pillaging people’s limited means of existence? How could he expect us to receive his message and de-link it from the platform he chose?
By evening, I was ready to get these questions out of my mind and in fact, switch off from the pre-pageantry of Sona2017. Boom! A press release from the Presidency. The routine language with which the statement announced “employment of soldiers to Parliament during Sona2017”, did very little to hide the full import of this decision, ‘to maintain law and order’.
To be clear, members of SANDF have always been in Parliament during Sona. They are there in different capacities; for military display, marching, symbolic and decorative purposes. Senior members of SANDF usually join their counterparts in other branches of government.
But, why 441? How does this relate to the increasingly securitisation of Parliament? What does this mean about the appearance and substantive meaning of parliament as an independent branch of our democracy?
This decision to “employ” SANDF members to Parliament is cause for concern. It comes after several incidents which undermined the independence of Parliament. Among these, is the infamous “signal jamming” and use of bouncers and police inside the parliamentary chamber.
Comments about the importance of “keeping law and order”, betray the real reason for such a large contingent of SANDF during Sona2017.
To appreciate implications of this decision, it is important for citizens to read the Constitution. Chapter 4 addresses composition of parliament, its role and place in society. Chapter 5, looks at the role of the President. Nowhere in these chapters, does “deployment of the army” appear. Chapter 2, Bill of Rights, Section 37, States of Emergency, and most importantly, Chapter 11, Section 201 deals with ‘employment of the defence force’ for Political responsibility. It is clear that troops are deployed under specific and extreme circumstances, including situations which threaten national security.
‘The President must inform Parliament, promptly and in detail, of reasons for the employment of the defence force…’
Since the army is not there to demonstrate their finest trombone playing and marching skills, what assessment has been done to establish that the South African Police Services cannot maintain law and order?
President Zuma and the leadership of parliament are openly disregarding the law and intimidating MPs and citizens. They no longer care about the semblance of parliamentary independence. They no longer care about the pretence that ours is a democracy which protects the right to speak freely, without fear.
SANDF will be in Parliament because President Zuma does not want to be embarrassed during Sona. If blurring lines between Parliament and the executive is how he will prevent this, he will go ahead. He will do so with the acquiescence of the leadership of Parliament.
The Constitutional Court, should the case go there, will find against Parliament and the Presidency. We know this because this has already been tested in the Democratic Alliance v Speaker of National Assembly and Others (2016) matter.
Importantly, the executive and leadership of Parliament may have decided to show force. Regrettably, it confirms the opposite of power. It reveals the vulnerability of our Parliament and yes, of Zuma, too. This move, shows a President who is afraid to address Parliament and the South African public. It shows a President who will address the South African public after Sona to show his connection with “the people”. He will do, when he has relied on heavy securitisation and clear signals that he is disconnected. DM
Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on Land, Gender, Politics and Cultural Issues.