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There were other alternatives available, but the African National Congress chose power politics as its strategy to deal with threats to the delivery of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Statements in the run-up to the SONA incident in parliament and in reaction to it afterwards from a variety of ANC functionaries, from Secretary General Gwede Mantashe to the president himself and National Chairperson Baleka Mbete, who happens to be speaker of the National Assembly as well, all make it clear: The ANC set out to show the Economic Freedom Fighters and other opposition parties who is the ‘boss’.

She and the ANC can also not claim they were surprised about how events developed on 12 February.

A statement by Speaker Mbete at a media briefing after the unseemly events in parliament on the day of the SONA, on close scrutiny, reveals much of this:

  • It states: “What happened was not an accident. It was a premeditated, coordinated act of inflicting a serious assault …;
  • It states: “It is common cause that in the build up to this SONA, the EFF made it known that they were going to disrupt the event …;
  • In the only hint at a political strategy – more a gesture really – to counter the EFF strategy it states: Over and above that, we received a day before SONA, answers from the President to questions that could not be completed due to disruptions;
  • It makes clear that from the outset it was the intention to enforce the rules of the house as interpreted by the presiding officers, come what may; and
  • When members of the EFF refused to leave the house as requested the sergeant-at-arms was first asked to assist, then the parliamentary protection services and finally the country’s Security Services.

 As has since become clear the presence of a scrambling device in parliament (revealed in court to have been brought in by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA)) the full spectrum of the Security Services was involved from the word go in planning for the day.

Missed opportunity

In all of this planning, however, an opportunity to outfox the EFF politically and within the rules of parliament, was either missed or probably ignored.

This response could even have been ‘scripted’ for President Zuma beforehand since everyone involved clearly knew what was coming. As soon as members of the EFF started to jump up to ask questions or on a “points of privilege” Mr Zuma could have said something like: “Madame Chair, allow me to assist you. I give the honourable members an undertaking that I will respond to the issue they are raising before I end my address” – the issue being a personal contribution to the improvements on his private residence at Nkandla.

The EFF members would then have had no alternative but to wait out the rest of the president’s address.

At the end of his address, in line with a comment he had made earlier, he then could have said something along the lines of: “A committee of parliament has said I’m under no obligation to make such a contribution. I do not understand the fuss that is being made.”

Sure, there most likely would have been a vocal outcry from the opposition benches at that point and it would not have been the end of the story of ‘Nkandlagate’ and all the pending court cases would still have proceeded.

But President Zuma would have been able to finish his SONA with some dignity and the country as a whole might have been spared the extremely embarrassing spectacle that parliament turned into at the occasion.

I think, however, that the ANC as a collective, which due to the policy of cadre deployment includes large swathes of top civil service managers, has become so set on playing the politics of naked power that it has lost the ability to be subtle and fleet-footed.

by Piet Coetzer

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