SONA Aftermath

The cockroach’s shadow over SONA events

Baleka Mbete wisely backing down
Baleka Mbete.jpg

As embarrassing as the events surrounding President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) were to South Africans as a nation, some good might still come from it.

After the SONA debacle on 12 February 2015 cool heads and strong political leadership are desperately required.

Unfortunately, instead of seizing the opportunity created by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) antics to prove his critics wrong, President Zuma once again let the country down. 

In contrast to former president Mandela who showed real statesmanship and vision when he defused a volatile situation to avert potential widespread violence, even civil war, by acting courageously conciliatory after the assassination of Chris Hani, Mr Zuma’s reaction to a situation described by one commentator as “the night South Africa stood still) was a nervous giggle.

Disappointment in this lack of leadership was only tempered by the fact that to most it hardly came as a surprise.   

Mmusi Maimane, the DA parliamentary leader, powerfully expressed the disillusionment of many South Africans when he told president Zuma, “You laughed while the people of South Africa cried for their beloved country ... We will never ever forgive you for what you did on that day.”


Sharing the dock with president Zuma in the court of public opinion is the highly compromised speaker of the National Assembly and ANC national chairperson, Baleka Mbete.

Already under pressure for her alleged bias, Mbete’s poor handling of the SONA proceedings was arguably the key reason why the SONA of 12 February 2015 became a day of infamy for the ANC and president Zuma.

As national chairperson Baleka Mbete’s power and influence in the ANC is unmistakable. Her name is also mentioned as a strong contender, some say the leading contender, should the ANC decide the time has come to elect South Africa’s first female president.

She also publically indicated that she is willing and ready to assume the responsibility of the presidency should she be nominated.

If the debacle of 12 February 2015 dented Mbete’s presidential ambitions, her first subsequent public appearance caused a stir that could seriously damage if not destroy such aspirations.

Bad choice of words

Delivering the keynote address at the ANC North West provincial conference, on 15 February 2015, Mbete labelled the leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, a “cockroach”, warning her ANC audience: “If we don't work we will continue to have cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place.”

Her remark was immediately widely condemned and commentators described it as reckless, careless and inflammatory. EFF secretary-general, Godrich Gardee, seized the opportunity to claim that her comments revealed the ANC’s agenda to incite “black-on-black violence”.

The ANC anxiously tried to limit the damage. Opposition parties, for their part, tried to score political points.

Another showdown during the debate on the SONA loomed should Mbete return as speaker to preside over it.

The opposition parties made it clear that they were opposed to her returning as speaker, even if it required a court interdict.

Tension was released with Mbete’s no-show for the debate and in a, for an ANC functionary, rare occurrence, backtracked and apologised for the cockroach analogy, saying: “I have concluded that my remarks – all offending statements I made – were inappropriate. The manner in which they came across was unfortunate and regrettable.

“I withdraw my remarks unreservedly. I apologise unconditionally, to South Africans, to Parliament and Honourable Julius Malema for any hurt or harm I may have caused."

Malema accepted the apology and then apologised to the leader of the DA, Helen Zille, for calling her a “cockroach” some years ago. In his words, “I now know how it feels to be called a cockroach.”

While it seems that some good did eventually come from Mbete’s public outburst, it might be worthwhile to reflect on why it is best to refrain from using cockroach-type insults, particularly in the African context.  

Personal experience        

I had the privilege to visit Rwanda, one of the most beautiful countries in Africa, in April 1994, shortly before the genocide that changed the character of that country forever.

The tragedy happened, ironically, at the same time all South Africans could for the first time in the country’s history vote for a government of their choice.

The “South African miracle” dominated news headlines at the time. Some historians and commentators are of the opinion that it diverted attention away from the horror that was unfolding in Rwanda.

I was blissfully unaware of the pending tragedy and enjoyed the time in Rwanda, especially the friendliness of the people. Sadly, few outsiders had any idea of how deep the ethnic tension and hatred really ran.

One morning a few weeks later, while watching CNN, I saw the shocking images of foreigners and expats desperately seeking refuge in the hotel I had stayed at. They were relying on a few poorly armed United Nations peacekeepers to protect them from the mayhem engulfing the country. 

Local Tutsis and moderate Hutus, branded “cockroaches”, were not so lucky. Forcefully turned away at the hotel’s entrance they became part of the 900 000 souls slaughtered in 90 days of anarchy while the world stood by and watched.

Loaded term

 “Cockroach” is a loaded word with an adverse resonance in especially the African context. In the language spoken in Rwanda, ‘inyenzi’ (cockroach) was the term used to dehumanise and insult Tutsis before they and moderate Hutus were indiscriminately butchered.

In South Africa the word has also become loaded and is often deliberately used to communicate a threatening and sinister message with full knowledge that those it is directed against will understand the implication.

In past xenophobia-related attacks in South Africa the victims, mostly foreigners, were often referred to as “cockroaches”.

Recent clashes between EFF and ANC supporters in Mogale City, which left several EFF supporters hospitalised, were, according to the EFF, fuelled by Mbete’s remark. 

While reason seems to have returned, for now, this unfortunate episode will hopefully become a reminder to those in public office and also every ordinary South African to be more tolerant. Tolerance can go a long way to improve relations and mutual understanding in South Africa’s diverse society while inflammatory language can be extremely dangerous.

by Garth Cilliers

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