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18 October 2017 18:39 (South Africa)
Opinionista Judith February

#SONA2017: Zuma fiddles while democracy burns

  • Judith February
    Judith-February.jpg
    Judith February

    Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She  was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years.

As Julius Malema said, “441 soldiers will never protect you”. The disregard for President Zuma is so complete, nothing he was going to say in his address could cure how ethically compromised he is.

President Jacob Zuma’s deployment of soldiers and the unprecedented security around Parliament this year set the tone for the State of the Nation Address; militaristic and combative. Yet Zuma knows that he can always rely on Speaker Baleka Mbete’s unquestioning protection. As Chair of the ANC she is deeply compromised herself and conflicted in her position as presiding officer. She has after all been unmoved by breaches of the Constitution in relation to the Nkandla matter and has diminished Parliament’s authority as a result. Zuma is weakened and paranoid and it was only through a show of force that he and his acolytes felt comfortable coming to “The People’s Parliament” on Thursday.

Much of the pre-SONA build-up focused, rightly, on the excessive security measures in place and less on what Zuma would actually say. Parliament was mostly in lockdown and the surrounding streets eerily quiet as 19:00 loomed. It seemed a perfect plan, possibly hatched by State Security minister David Mahlobo – with Mbete’s acquiescence – to ensure uBaba’s safety.

But leaving aside the excessive security, perhaps the most shameful moment (and there were many) of the evening was right at the start when Speaker Baleka Mbete denied a request by the DA’s John Steenhuisen for a minute’s silence to remember the 94 mentally ill patients who died after being moved from the Life Esidimeni facility to unsuitable facilities. That Mbete could not bring herself to allow the minute’s silence indicates just how lacking in care and generosity this Parliament and government are. Zuma himself might well have intervened at that point, but he chose not to. Callous disdain is his preferred way.

The EFF clearly came ready to do battle. Their MPs started taking points of order repeatedly relating to Zuma’s breach of the Constitution in the Nkandla matter and then the alleged presence of SAPS in the National Assembly. The EFF claimed that SAPS officers were “planted” among the protection officers and equipped with whips and “biological” spray. And so it went on and on until COPE’s rather hapless Willie Madisha was asked to leave for what seemed like a minor misdemeanour.

The DA at first requested that the business of the evening be concluded. But once things descended into chaos and DA leader Musi Maimane tried to intervene, several ANC MPs, who thus far had remained virtually silent, shouted him down. In a base display, an ANC member was heard clearly using the F-word at Maimane. Did Mbete not hear that, one wonders? Other inexplicable cries of “racist!” were hurled at Maimane, and the DA left.

Oddly enough – or maybe deliberately – the sound feed was intermittent at many points during the skirmishes between the protection services and opposition MPs. What a disgrace the ANC has become; a shadow of its former self, trying to win arguments by dint of expletives and force and not by the weight of argument.

The EFF of course was spoiling for the fight and while it is so that Zuma has breached the Constitution and has not been properly held to account, their disruptive strategy has its limits. Unlike in Romania and South Korea, people are not jamming the streets and squares of our country demanding that Zuma goes. Thus far there have been open calls for his resignation, but it’s hardly a revolution.

The EFF too has to understand the boundaries of its own electoral mandate and work rather more assiduously to cultivate its support base. That fight, one cannot help but think, must be taken to the streets and worked for with a disciplined, longer-term strategy and tactical approach. Yet, whatever the faults of the EFF and its rambunctious opposition, the points made by both the EFF and the DA regarding riot police in the precinct and alleged SAPS infiltration in the House were perfectly valid and democratically important.

The Speaker, however, dismissed all the security related questions with undue haste. Did she know something we did not? She casually apologised to visitors in the public gallery who appeared to be victims of pepper spray. How is this even possible? And yet, even as “white shirts” forcefully dragged EFF members out (and they responded in kind by throwing their helmets at them), members of the ANC sat watching in silence, or jeering and cheering.

Jacob Zuma, typically unfazed, simply rose to deliver his sonorous speech with his customary laugh. As he stepped up to the podium on Thursday night, Zuma had the opportunity to take the moral high ground and depart from his dull, scripted speech and reflect on the shocking scenes just witnessed. He had an opportunity to state his government’s commitment to openness and transparency – two founding principles in our Constitution – and to answer the questions related to the deployment of soldiers. Surely he knew about that? If he didn’t, who did? But instead, he began what was probably the greatest non sequitur in the circumstances. He simply continued his speech as if nothing happened. Without a hint of irony, he referred to the legacy of Oliver Tambo. He is no Tambo.

By that time most of the opposition had left and Zuma was right in his comfort zone speaking to what was in essence a party gathering. As usual, his stilted delivery left us grasping for the written text. Zuma showed himself entirely disconnected from the content of the speech and barely tried to hide it.

Apparently we are entering a new phase of “radical economic transformation”, however. Zuma asked, What do we mean by radical socio-economic transformation? We mean fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female, as defined by the governing party which makes policy for the democratic government.” That is all familiar territory for the ANC.

Much of what Zuma spoke of seems pretty much the same as what we have heard all along, related to land redistribution, changing ownership patterns, real empowerment and the creation of a class of black industrialists. Despite 2016 being dominated by the #FeesMustFall protests, what was offered by way of “solutions” was pedestrian to say the least.

Zuma came before a country straining under the weight of inequality and seeking answers to issues of state capture that will not go away no matter how long he seeks to delay the commission of enquiry to look into these allegations. The speech offered no further clarity as regards the dismal state of SOEs, the crisis in the National Prosecuting Authority, the debacle surrounding the Social Security Agency and, of course, persistent rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle. There was very little in the way of radical policy shifts simply because the messenger is compromised and preoccupied with palace politics. The ANC itself has all but run out of ideas.

Zuma’s own credibility within and outside the ANC is in tatters. He is now increasingly reliant on the rent-seekers and those in his Cabinet who are most incompetent to prop him up. And his political base within the provincial ANC. He leads a divided Cabinet and a divided party. In this context then it becomes very difficult to speak of “radical economic transformation” when the president himself is undermining the economy and the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, consistently.

Ultimately though, what Zuma said was entirely overshadowed by chaotic scenes of kragdadigheid inside and outside of Parliament. SONA 2017 was a night of deep shame and the man at the centre of it all remains unbowed. As citizens we stared tyranny in the face on Thursday night and saw a cowardly President perfectly prepared to use force to back up his waning power.

After the speech drew to a painfully slow end, one could not help but wonder what OR Tambo himself would have made of this torturous night. Yet, the enduring picture is of Zuma, a latterday Nero, fiddling and all around him; “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. WB Yeats has never sounded as apposite as on Thursday night. DM

  • Judith February
    Judith-February.jpg
    Judith February

    Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She  was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years.

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