Sona Watch

How different it could have been – opinion


The State of the Nation Address, Sona 2017, left South Africa embarrassed, its parliamentary democracy in need of intensive care and the populists probably the only winners on the day.

It could all have been so much different if focus of the man who should have been the centre of attention, President Jacob Zuma’s  was more on parliamentary politics than that of the power kind.

A bit more parliamentary political strategic astuteness, might have had him recognise the opportunity to turn the tables on the members in the opposition benches – an opportunity that he let by unnoticed last week Thursday.  

Against the background of the last couple of years with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) disrupting proceedings whenever President Zuma was involved in the business of the day in parliament, no-one could have expected an incident-free and calm opening of parliament and a smooth delivery of the Sona.

The involvement of the South African Defence Force in the arrangements surrounding the kick-off of the year’s parliamentary programme, plans and rumours of plans of protests in the streets of Cape Town on the day, and a planned mass “people’s assembly” on the Parade a few blocks from parliament, added to the hype.

The president and the presiding officers were always going to be under tremendous pressure from the word go – and so it was with the now almost customary misuse of the rules of the house appertaining to points of order by members.

And then the gap came. Almost immediately after the customary opportunity for silent prayers and meditation for members, the chief whip of the official opposition Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, requested the chair to allow members to observe a moment of silence in remembrance of the 94 mentally ill patients who died under controversial circumstance in Gauteng province.

DA members also waved “Remember the Esidimeni ‘94” flags in their benches. It was clear they identified the tragedy, under the watch of an ANC government in Gauteng, as an emotional platform to create embarrassment for the governing party.

Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, quite correctly under the rules of the house, ruled that it was not part of the “business of the day.”

Following proceedings on television, with the privilege of having served as a parliamentary whip for almost four years after 1994, I thought to myself, here is an opportunity for the president to score some serious points.

What I believe he should have done, immediate after he finally got his first opportunity to start with his address, was to offer to the Speaker some of his time, or made it part of his address, to request members to rise for a moment of silence for the Esidimeni victims.

He would later in his address refer to the tragedy anyway. None of the opposition parties could or probably would have objected to such a request by the President. Not only would he have put himself on some moral high ground, but it might have set a more sedate tone for a debate to follow, focussed on the bet interest of the country and its people first and foremost.

Party politics

The message that is presently coming through to citizens from parliament, is that their representatives are, above all, mostly interested in what is best for the parties they belong to. And, that does not only apply to the ANC

In this instance, the DA runs the risk of being ccused of, and probably rightfully so, as opportunistically using the tragedy experienced by very vulnerable people for its own petty party political gain.

It is also telling that, on the day after the Sona, President Zuma at a post-Sona breakfast event said: “I’m not working for my legacy. I'm working for the ANC, for the legacy of the ANC." No word about national interest or the country as a whole.

This is a situation that dangerously plays into a global trend of discontent among ordinary people and of loss of trust in governing elites. In South Africa the deficit of trust between the governing elite and ordinary citizens has reached critical levels.

EFF strategy

One might not agree with the tactics of the EFF, but they at least have a legitimate point, claiming they are defending South Africa’s parliamentary democracy by attempting to prevent President Zuma from addressing parliament against the background of Constitutional Court judgements regarding him and the breach of his oath of office.

It was interesting to watch the expression on the face of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when the cameras focused on him during the early arguments at the Sona. He looked almost pained by the sceptcale playing itself out.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the streets of South Africa who has faith in the processes that are presently playing out in parliament.

It is, from a social stability point of view a very dangerous spot for the country to be in.

There is an urgent need for members of parliament, form all parties, to engage in some serious introspection. Especially the ANC members needs to ask themselves how much longer the country can afford the man, at the core of the trust deficit between those who govern and the governed, at the levers of power before the country explodes in uncontrollable social unrest.

by Piet Coetzer

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