Flypasts, 21-gun salutes, and ostentatious fashion statements by preening MPs. The annual opening of Parliament with its presidential State of the Nation Address (Sona) is one of those political rituals that has always mattered more to the participants than it does to the ordinary citizen.
Joe Soap generally paid the pomp and platitudes little attention. After all, in a year’s time Sona’s promises would likely have proved, yet again, to be just so much hot air.
That was until 2015, the first Sona after the May 2014 general election in which the Economic Freedom Fighters won their first seats and burst into the hallowed halls of Parliament, turning everything topsy-turvy.
The most memorable aspect to 2014’s Sona had been a minister who inexplicably chose to dress up as a South African Airways pilot. But 2015 was a humdinger — red-overalled EFF MPs being forcibly removed from the chamber by the police, flying fists, a walkout by opposition MPs, the “inadvertent” jamming of the cellphone signal within the parliamentary precincts, and a video blackout by the public broadcaster of the rowdiest moments.
With such dramatic precedents, Sona 2016 was always going to be closely watched, albeit only for the entertainment it might provide. But public interest was further stimulated by a growing sense of national crisis and the consequent need for President Jacob Zuma, just this once, to provide some inspirational leadership.
There was also the reality that while much was hoped for of Zuma, everyone was aware that he would in fact enter the National Assembly arena politically weaker than he has been at any time since being fired by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2005. For Zuma had recently made a series of political miscalculations that damaged his country, his party and himself.
It started with the firing of respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and then, in the face of a currency meltdown, a humiliating climb-down. Then, last week, hoping to avoid similar humiliation in the Constitutional Court, he backtracked on two years of intransigence, suddenly offering to pay back some portion of the state expenditure on his private home at Nkandla.
The ploy failed and the EFF and the Democratic Alliance insisted on the hearing going ahead, infelicitously timed for the ANC to occur in the very week of Sona. Since Zuma appears, at least on the surface, to be impervious to embarrassment, one does not know how much his U-turn on Nkandla and the powers of the Public Protector has cost him psychologically.
There is no doubt, however, that the U-turn — the result, as his counsel Jeremy Gauntlett diplomatically explained the dawning of the light, of Zuma experiencing “incremental clarity” on the issues — has cost his most loyal ANC lieutenants dearly. After doing everything to defend and exonerate the Nkandla expenditure, they now had to hear him concede that all the other Nkandla investigations put in place by them on his instructions, were not only invalid — “heat and dust”, in Gauntlett’s words — but that Zuma also accepted that the ministers involved in the controversy should be reprimanded and that this should be part of the court’s order.
Nkandla had “traumatised the nation”, said Gauntlett and Zuma now admitted that he had to obey the Public Protector’s findings. But his team urged the court not to be “inveigled into … making some form of wide, condemnatory order, which will be used effectively for … impeachment in Parliament”.
So when Zuma swept down the red carpet and into the National Assembly on Thursday night for Sona, no amount of pomp and circumstance could disguise that this was a man who was taking a political battering. Outside in the streets, riot police kept demonstrators under control with razor wire and the occasional stun grenade.
Inside the chamber, Zuma’s only protection was the Speaker Baleka Mbete’s nifty but procedurally suspect footwork in suspending the parliamentary rules on points of order, to try to prevent the EFF from constantly interrupting the president’s address. The ploy was only partly successful, with Sona running an hour late and the Congress of the People and the EFF eventually walking out, and with EFF leader Julius Malema having found a new moniker with which to torment Zuma. The president is now, said Malema, Mr Zupta, referencing the president’s controversial relationship with the wealthy Gupta family.
Given the unreasonably high hopes, Sona was perhaps doomed to be a damp squib. Zuma might be a singing sensation when he belts out Umshini Wami — Bring me my machine gun — at ANC sing-songs, but he is a lacklustre public speaker.
And Sona’s content, largely focused on the economy in the hopes of saving SA from an imminent credit ratings downgrade, didn’t help him. There was nothing much new and while the sentiments expressed would meet with broad investor approval, there was no new sense of urgency to persuade the sceptics that this time around the government would not only talk, but also act.
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