Stutter. Fumble. Twitch. Smirk. Cough. Giggle. Scratch. It was yet another painful and desultory performance, long on rhetoric but short on substance, by President Jacob Zuma in his 10th state of the nation address to Parliament.
This annual pilgrimage has become Zuma’s personal Via Dolorosa, threading its way along a massive security cordon, ribboned with razor wire. It ended, as always, with his ritual crucifixion at the hands of the opposition parties.
It’s a spectacle of pomposity and paranoia. It’s a tasteless display of fashion frippery, preening against a backdrop of armoured cars.
This year the African National Congress’s fear of the people ratcheted up a notch, with the unconstitutional deployment outside the legislature of hundreds of soldiers in combat fatigues, armed with automatic weapons, side arms, and live ammunition. That’s in addition to the riot police that are now ubiquitous at any event that sports the president.
On the most important, solemn events of the political calendar, television viewers of the state broadcaster could flip between fawning coverage on one channel and The Bold and the Beautiful on the next. The comic content meant SONA edged out the soapie on entertainment value, but the intelligence quotient of the latter was appreciably higher.
The same script endlessly repeated must inevitably induce ennui. The self-conscious dramatics of the Economic Freedom Fighters are now tiresomely predictable and pointless. They enter the chamber, hurl insults at the president, pervert parliamentary procedure until they manage to goad the Speaker beyond the point of no return, and are then evicted.
Even the ritualistic fisticuffs of the closing EFF scene, where their MPs are forcibly bundled out, had a Hollywood unreality to it. Was that EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema flailing in the grips of a security officer or was it his body double?
The only novel aspect to the EFF charade was their producing a plastic cable tie found in the House, as evidence that the parliamentary protection unit intended to subdue them violently and then inject them with a “biological weapon”. Without any apparent sense of irony, they demanded the protection of the Speaker.
The Democratic Alliance fared better with their act of showmanship – a request for 30 seconds of silence for the 94 Esidimeni victims – but then again, they did have in their favour the fact that Speaker Baleka Mbete is emotionally tone deaf. Instead of acquiescing and at one stroke defusing any political advantage that might accrue to the DA, by associating the ANC with appropriate remorse over this tragedy, she refused.
Mbete, for a woman who has presidential ambitions, continues to underwhelm. Every time that the proceedings became heated, she handed over to the far more competent National Chamber of Provinces’ chair, Thandi Modise. Modise, as is to be expected of a woman who faced animal cruelty charges after the livestock on her farm died for lack of food and water, is merciless. Even Malema seems a little scared of her.
Every iteration of SONA has its Keystone Cops moment. This time the parliamentary security officers distinguished themselves by pepper spraying the public gallery, leading to the early exit of a number of sneezing honoured guests, their eyes streaming.
One assumes that the pepper spraying was an accident. On the other hand, among the VIPs was former president Thabo Mbeki – doubtlessly gloating over what a hash his nemesis, Jacob Zuma, is making of things – so one cannot be entirely confident that a vengeful instruction had not been whispered into a receptive ear.
At the end of the day, SONA has, for South Africans, become more of an impromptu instruction in the fine distinctions between a point of order and a point of privilege, rather than what it was intended to do. It is meant to be a platform where government can boast of its achievements of the past year and to outline its goals for the coming one.
The president’s bumbling, meandering performance was symptomatic of his administration’s plight. The country is rudderless; its government is corrupt and incompetent. Until Zuma is replaced, there is nothing much that the ANC can do but repackage old platitudes, recycle clichéd mantras.
Just as there was little from the past year of which to boast, the ambitions for 2017 were similarly threadbare. This year’s SONA promise of “radical economic transformation” had been leaked long before hand, presumably to build expectation. But there was nothing substantively new in the “new chapter” unveiled by Zuma.
The SONA fringe theatre was equally lacklustre. To make up for the brickbats and antipathy that they knew Zuma would encounter in Parliament, the ANC had bussed in supporters to its own so-called People’s Assembly down the drag, on the Grand Parade.
But the event drew only a fraction of the 30,000 people predicted. And it was not the president’s populist patter that drew the applause, but his rollicking rendition of his signature tune, Umshini Wam (Bring Me My Machinegun).
Given the fluency and verve of his singing, perhaps Zuma should contemplate turning next year’s SONA into a musical. It might be the only way to rescue a hitherto pathetic performance.
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