South Africa’s State of the Nation Address brought shame on the country in more ways than one as South Africans watched a horror show in their parliament. Pusch Commey and James Schneider report on how the Zuma/Malema rivalry and the president’s persistent attempts to dodge the Nkandla scandal are pushing the nation’s politics to breaking point.
February was a bad month for South Africa. The country received more poor economic news as load-shedding by energy parastatal Eskom has become the new norm. Non-operational traffic lights (known as robots here) have become a painful reminder of the challenges the nation is currently experiencing.
But it was the political domain that bore the most worrying signs of crisis.
11 February was the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The famous images of that day – Mandela and his wife Winnie with their fists in the air – marked a remarkable and exciting turning point in South African history. From that moment, the direction of travel was clear; South Africa would have a democratic future.
12 February saw what should have been the sober occasion of the State of the Nation Address – the president’s annual speech to a joint sitting of parliament.
Instead, the South African public were treated to the spectacle of a pantomime horror show. The famous images of this day – opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs being physically dragged from the chamber by security forces – mark another remarkable but tragic turn in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. From now on, the direction of travel is far from clear; how democratic will South Africa’s political and economic future be?
Before President Jacob Zuma got to parliament’s podium to deliver his speech, two events signalling the degeneration of South Africa’s political culture had already taken place. First, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Marius Redelinghuys was arrested outside parliament along with other DA supporters. Water cannon was used against DA protestors as the police used what appeared to be heavy-handed tactics in footage taken by onlookers.
Then, the mobile phone signal in the parliament building was jammed, preventing journalists from reporting live on events. Both the journalists in the gallery and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip John Steenhuisen were outraged by the limiting of journalists’ ability to report on events in parliament, which they deemed a breach of the constitution.
After journalists had chanted “bring back the signal”, the speaker of parliament and ruling African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Baleke Mbete announced “the scrambling has been unscrambled”. Journalists returned to tweeting and uploading videos. And lucky they were as events proceeded.
Zuma began his speech with an extended protocol-heavy introduction. Before he could get into his speech proper, opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Secretary General Godrich Gardee interrupted him on a Point of Principle. The EFF caucus were ready for the fight, armed with parliament’s rulebook. Mbete was ready too, but less well briefed on the rules. She appeared confused by Gardee raising a Point of Principle as opposed to a Point of Order.
The EFF Secretary General predictably asked Zuma when he would “pay back the money” that the state spent on the president’s personal residence in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Last year, South Africa’s Public Protector ordered Zuma to repay part of the R246 million ($20million) cost of the upgrades, which included a swimming pool and an amphitheatre. Although Mbete implored Gardee to desist, he asked the president what method he would use to repay the money, “EFT [electronic financial transfer], cash or e-wallet?” It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.
Mbete and Thandi Modise, chairperson of the National Council of the Provinces, parliament’s upper house, who were jointly chairing the joint sitting, tried to prevent the EFF MPs from asking Zuma the same question. Mbete switched between using the parliamentary language of “Honourable Malema” and “Julius” to refer to the EFF’s leader as he further challenged the president. The two speakers’ entreaties fell on deaf ears; Zuma remained seated, refusing to answer the EFF’s question. The speakers ordered Malema and co to leave the chamber. When they didn’t, security forces were ordered in. A fracas ensued as white-shirted security officers battled with EFF MPs, forcibly removing them from the chamber. Some injuries were reported, including a fractured cheekbone for MP Reneilwe Mashabane.
The presence of police, who report to the executive branch, as opposed to parliamentary security officers, who report to the legislative branch, in the chamber breached the constitution according to Steenhuisen and leader of the opposition Mmusi Maimane. They both calmly but forcefully challenged the speakers to inform the chamber whether the security forces that violently removed their EFF colleagues were police officers. When neither Mbete nor Modise confirmed or denied that the men in white shirts were police, Maimane led his caucus out of the chamber. It was later confirmed that the armed security forces that entered the chamber and removed the EFF MPs were indeed police officers.
Good story to tell?
What followed was perhaps the most surreal part of the evening. Zuma delivered his Address to a chamber almost entirely populated by ANC MPs. He stuck relentlessly to his script, making no reference to what had just come to pass.
From Zuma’s speech it seems strange to remember that just a few years ago, when he was challenging his predecessor Thabo Mbeki for the top job in the ANC, he was considered charismatic. This quality was not in evidence in his monotone Address. Zuma is not a natural parliamentarian. He does not enjoy the cut and thrust and has been avoiding appearing in the chamber since the two main opposition parties started relentlessly quizzing him on the Nkandla scandal. His Address was his first appearance in parliament since August 2014.
The content of the speech appeared myopic. South Africa is clearly a better country than it was in 1994, and the ANC can take much credit for that. However, it is a nation beset by troubles: a sclerotic energy sector, staggering inequality, low rates of employment, fractious industrial relations and persistent scandals around corruption and mismanagement. Zuma’s speech was defensively titled “a Good Story to Tell”. The ANC’s remarkable political dominance – winning over 60% of the vote in five general elections in a row – should give it the confidence to be ambitious. Instead, Zuma’s speech offered too little to reassure voters that, despite the turmoil of the day, South Africa’s government was self-aware, self-critical and on top of the substantive issues.
Breaking the system?
Zuma has given the EFF and Malema the attention they crave. The assault on the EFF MPs and the size and staying power of the Nkandla scandal is helping the EFF ignore its internal divisions.
The party has suspended Andile Mngxitama, an intellectual heavyweight in the party, its former Commissar for Land and the Agrarian Revolution and a sitting MP. At least four of the EFF’s 25 MPs are in the dissident faction, but as many as seven stayed away from the State of the Nation Address.
The president has also made leader of the opposition Mmusi Maimane look calm, controlled, yet seething with righteous anger. This might be the moment that the 34-year-old Maimane, previously derided in some quarters as a politically lightweight version of Obama, comes of political age. In a well-received speech in parliament on 17 February, Maimane accused Zuma of being “willing to break this parliament if it means escaping accountability for the wrongs [he has] done.” He spoke for many when he charged that “Parliament’s constitutional obligation to fearlessly scrutinise and oversee the Executive lost all meaning on Thursday night. The brute force of the state won. And the hearts of our nation broke. We knew, at that very moment, that our democratic order was in grave danger.”
The protégé-turned-enemy dynamic between Malema and Zuma appears to be one of the driving forces behind this danger to democratic order. It seems unlikely that either party will be willing to back down. The question is, how far is either party willing to go and will it break South Africa’s political system?
Two days after the Address, Mbete gave a worrying sign of what could be to come. At an ANC North West Provincial Conference, she referred to Malema as “a cockroach”. On 18 February, she apologised for this incendiary comment. She also bizarrely accused the EFF of being part of a plot by unnamed Western countries to control South Africa’s mines. It is EFF policy to nationalise the mines, primarily through expropriation. According to Mbete, the EFF “are pawns in a bigger scheme of things where some western governments are involved.”
Again, these comments could be amusing if they were not so concerning. As the speaker of parliament, Mbete is meant to play a neutral role in the house. She appears to be a belligerent rather than a referee.
Wherever one feels the fault lies in the current political and economic crisis South Africa finds itself in, it is clear the country is being pushed to the edge. The question is whether it can be pulled back from the brink before it is too late.