It was the best and worse of South African political discourse. It was the raw hope of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison exactly 25 years ago this week, reduced to a squabbling farce.
It was the magisterial Chair of the National Chamber of Provinces versus the classroom monitor pettiness of the Speaker of the National Assembly. It was the froth and spittle of the Economic Freedom Fighters versus the calm rationality of the Democratic Alliance. It was juvenile low-fives and catcalls from the governing party benches versus the outraged eloquence of Inkatha Freedom Party veteran Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
And then there was Jacob Zuma. The President of the Republic of South Africa, the most powerful nation on the continent, was reduced to an inconsequential walk-on role in the drama originally written with him as the title star. He could not even keep his own supporters awake, with a number of ANC MPs snoring gently throughout his lacklustre performance.
The State of the Nation address (Sona) was disastrous. Zuma was reduced to a shuffling, lip-smacking, giggling caricature, spouting platitudes and painfully sounding his way past the three-syllable words like a lazy schoolboy who hadn’t done his preparation, when called upon to read aloud in class.
There was nary an original thought or felicitous phrase to be found in the long ordeal. The pedestrian and tired compilation of ‘good story to tell’ factoids appeared not even to engage the president. Aside from the occasional curiously high-pitched chortle that is his nervous trademark, Zuma seemed drawn and glum.
He has much to be glum about. Already the president has curtailed his presence at large public gatherings, his minders trying as best possible to ensure that he is not humiliated by booing. Now he cannot even deliver the most important address in the parliamentary calendar without it degenerating into a raucous circus, controlled not by the protocols of constitutional democracy but by armed policemen in the Assembly and the state’s jamming of cellular phones, so that his embarrassment could not be the instant fodder of the world’s social media.
It’s a malignant distortion of the purpose of Parliament as the chamber where the voice of the people can be heard, to try to stage-manage inconvenient realities. While it is true that the populist voice, as articulated by a crass EFF, is rude and peremptory it is foolish to pretend that the question of Zuma, ‘When are you going to pay back the money’ spent by the state on your private home, is not one that resonates across the land.
While the EFF MPs were bodily evicted and the president chortled gleefully, the parliamentary channel switched off sound and resolutely focused solely on the presiding officers. This happened at several points of the proceedings – some poor controller sitting in a booth trying desperately trying to gauge with split-second accuracy whether an intervention was out of order (mute) or a legitimate motion (audio, please) – so that Sona was at times like watching a show in mime.
We, too, as a nation in crisis should be equally glum, when the shameful ongoing xenophobic violence against foreign shop-owners in the townships elicited not a mention, never mind condemnation. This at a sitting attended by a high-powered African Union presence and in recognition of which the best Zuma could do was promise that all South African schoolchildren would learn the AU anthem by Africa Month in May.
The strangest thing about both Sona and the Zuma administration is the bizarre pretence that all is fine and dandy in the land. There is a pathological inability to admit that there is any problem at all.
Although the president devoted a lengthy part of Sona to Eskom, it was never to get to grips with the fact that the economy is being brought to its knees. Instead, it was to recite empty reassurances, like an avuncular physician who is unable to diagnose, never mind treat, a dread disease, but hopes to placate the unfortunate victim with as cheery a demeanour as possible,
By raising expectations of Sona 2015 – lots of government hype, with calls on the citizenry to submit their suggestions on content – but in the end delivering little, Zuma may have fallen into the trap that snared PW Botha in 1985. He and his advisers put out the word that in a speech at Durban city hall he would ‘cross the Rubicon’, at a stroke jettisoning apartheid, releasing political prisoners, and introducing a universal franchise.
It did not happen. The rand plummeted. Discontent flared into low-grade insurrection. A few years later PW was history.
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