Is there still life on Planet Zuma?

Andrew Donaldson examines the signs in the debate on the President's SONA 2016

IT was the stuff of Star Trek. The National Assembly and the State of the Nation Address debate was going to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. 

And so it seemed for a few giddy moments – especially with Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane taking the podium with much the same brio as Captain Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise.

A course had been plotted for a distant world in a remote galaxy, Maimane suggested. But there was nothing strange or new about our destination. It was a lump of rock out there that we were all too familiar with: Planet Zuma.

Nevertheless, it was a promising start to a response to the President’s dullish performance last Thursday, one prefaced with a reminder of the extraordinary measures – razor wire, stun grenades, security cops – that were put in place to keep Jacob Zuma safely tucked away from reality.

“Planet Zuma,” Maimane declared, “is a place in a parallel universe, far, far away from the lives of ordinary South Africans.”

It was a place where a supposedly excellent finance minister was fired and replaced with an obscure backbencher with associates linked to the Gupta family – think then of them as Romulans in our voyage to the end of the universe – and where the Borg-like figure of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, a fugtive from justice wanted on genocide charges, gets the five star hospitality treatment.

It was a place where students protesting the cost of higher education were labelled a “third force” – as Klingons, perhaps – and where mineworkers were massacred by yet more Borgs. A place where eight million plus were unemployed, and where access to a good education remained an elusive dream for many.

It was all a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and there was cacophonous jeering and cheering – depending on which side of the house you sat – as Maimane thundered on. 

It was an impressive performance – particularly as ANC backbenchers seemingly tired of heckling Maimane and opted instead to listen. 

“Jacob Zuma is not an honourable man, he said. Because, if he was an honourable man, he would do the honourable thing and resign.”

Then it was back to warp speed through the cosmos.

“Planet Zuma’s gravitational pull is so strong that the entire ANC has been sucked into its orbit,” Maimane said. “The party that was once the defender of freedom, has now become the defender of just one man. Every [ANC] member . . . knows the damage that this man is doing to this country . . . but not one of you, not one of you, has the guts to speak up about what has happened. You should be ashamed.”

There was more of that from Maimane, especially on Nkandla and the “years of stalling, lying, ducking and diving” before Zuma finally agreed to to pay back the money for the upgrades to his home. 

Through all this, the President appeared indifferent, lifeless. There was none of his customary chuckling, and certainly not a single acknowledgment of Maimane’s comments. Were it not for the fact that he appeared to be chewing gum, or maybe struggling with the remnants of lunch, there was little to indicate that he was still with us. On this planet, sit were.

Then came he who had somehow resisted the gravitational pull of Planet Zuma, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema. He stormed through his address, trying to cram an hour’s worth of doctrinaire Chavezinist tub-thumping into his alloted 18 minutes.

Out came all the bumper sticker cliches, sometimes crashing into one another like an asteroid cloud having a bad day at the office. “Criminal elements” were piggy-backing on “morally compromised human being”, “genocide” and “colonialism” were stalking the land, and everywhere poor South Africans were “living like pigs” in a “so-called democracy”.

But there were two startling contributions from the tubby firebrand. 

In the first, he formally apologised to former presidents Thabo Mbeki and the late Nelson Mandela for bringing Zuma to power and reducing South Africa to a “junk country”.

In the second, he revealed how the Sports Minister, Fikile Mbalula, had begged him not to campaign for Zuma to replace Mbeki when he was president of the ANC Youth League. 

“Mbalula [then deputy minister of police] called me from the mountain to say I must not participate in that process. When I was a friend with minister of sports‚ he received a call from the Guptas and they told him that he will be [sports] minister.”

Mbalula, it must be said, appeared a bit dumbstruck at this. A rare thing. Mbaks, you could say, had suddenly lost his fizz. (Hours later, he tweeted, “The info Julius dished today in his speech is not new. [it] is well known, public record.” But by then the moment had passed.)

His speech over, Malema then brattishly led his party out the chamber, saying there was no point in continuing with the debate. “Bye bye!” he trumpeted.

Speaker Baleka Mbete then controversially ruled that Malema’s speech would be expunged from the record of proceedings. 

Which, it must be said, then took a rather dullish turn. The afternoon’s fireworks were now largely over.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi was up next with a duller than usual performance. His attempts at offsetting Malema’s vapid mulishness with an elder statesman schtick came to nowt. 

In marked contrast, the DA’s Phumzile van Damme stood out with her blunt, direct attack on Zuma and the ruling partys wilful failure on youth-related issues. The ruling party, she said, was “an out of touch old-age home”. On social media, commentators were largely supportive of her comments here.

But then it was back to intergalactic travel. It wasn’t immediately apparent which planet Derek Hanekom, the Tourism Minister, was living on, but there was a strong suspicion that it may be populated by unicorns and rainbows. 

He managed to startle the House out of its languid stupor with a display of optimism – or perhaps bum-sucking, which, I believe, is the term du jour – that is all too rare in this jaundiced age. Somehow, he managed to end each phrase of his speech with an exclamation mark! It was an extraordinary display of sycophancy. The bum-suck gauges were now peaking on eleven, when a healthy seven would have sufficed. 

As far as he was concerned, there was very little in the way of economic woes that tourism could not improve. An army of bellhops and chambermaids is waiting in the wings to break the back of the unemployment crisis. Every foreign visitor to South Africa would be greeted by a wave of smiling locals falling over themselves to point out another wonderful attraction that would bring visitors to our shores from across the universe. 

Like the renowned near death experiences.

In this regard, Hanekom invited the President to go bungee jumping with him. He did, too. 

He also suggested Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa hang out with some Great Whites.

“Yes!” he said. “You can dive with sharks! In the Atlantic Ocean!”

“You can do it in here as well,” the DA’s chief whip, John Steenhuisen, retorted.

But we were still lost in space. The Human Settlements Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, who put in the last performance of the day. As usual, it was her wig that did all the talking – although her alarming corset-like frock gave it stiff competition.

It really was like some windswept thicket, that hair. How disappointing, then, that it wasn’t home to a bunch of small animals but rather a random selection of quotes from the current whiteness studies business.

The debate continues this afternoon.