SA’s Problem Number 1

2015-02-16 06:00

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A few months before the 1994 elections, Tony Leon went to campaign on the campus of the University of the Western Cape, then the self-professed “intellectual home of the left”.

At the time, the feisty Leon was the most prominent face of the Democratic Party (DP), eclipsing the now late Zach de Beer, who was as charismatic as a Saudi stripper.

The hall was packed with students from various political formations, with ANC colours matching those of the DP.

The liberation movement’s songs being sung by pro-ANC students and union members were louder than the chants of the hosts.

When Leon began speaking, the ANC crowd continued singing and drowned out his message.

Defiant as ever, he tried to speak above the crowd, but they just sang louder.

As things got rowdier and spun out of control, vice-chancellor Jakes Gerwel and ANC stalwart Kader Asmal tried to reason with the students, telling them democracy meant everyone should be allowed to have their voices heard.

It was to no avail, and Leon was eventually chased out of the hall and off the campus.

As his car raced off the university premises, with missiles following in its wake, Gerwel and Asmal stood on the road looking forlorn and defeated.

This lowly newspaperman, then a young reporter covering the event, quite enjoyed the moment. Like the students and union members, I was chuffed that the no-go zone had been adequately protected.

Who was this Leon to think he could campaign at the intellectual home of the left? How dare he? He should just campaign among his whites and leave the intellectual home of the left to its rightful owners.

I’m ashamed to say it, but I smiled as the students and union members celebrated their “victory” over freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Twenty-one years later, senior members of the governing party celebrated the violent eviction of an opposition party from the National Assembly.

They applauded as security men roughed up fellow parliamentarians and bundled them out of the House. These “boys” had been taught a lesson, was the sentiment.

Later that night, ANC heavyweight and Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe addressed a media briefing in which he used a lot of d’s.

Giving the Cabinet’s response to the night’s events, he said government was “disgusted and disturbed” with the chaos in Parliament.

He said there were people who were bringing the hard-won democracy into “disrepute”.

This behaviour was “dishonouring” the work of people who had paid with their lives to free South Africa.

The public would be “disappointed” and outraged about those who disrupted President Jacob Zuma’s address to Parliament and all South Africans should condemn the “despicable” actions of the people whose sole intention was to “disrupt” Parliament.

Like many South Africans, Radebe was angry and sad. He was angry at the red-clad battalion who had humiliated the president and drowned out his speech.

Unlike many, he was angry with the disrupters, not the cause of the disruption.

It was a night to remember. Not for happy reasons, like the night of December 16 1995, when Orlando Pirates beat Asec Abidjan to clinch the African Champions Cup.

The night of February 12 2015 will be remembered because the heart of democracy was pierced by a governing party that refused to see that the problem in South Africa was the person its members chose to lead us; that our problem was a Jacob Zuma problem.

The Oscar Pistorius and Shrien Dewani matters are probably the only major controversies with no Zuma element in them.

Institutions of governance and state-owned enterprises have been paralysed and rendered ungovernable by Zuma-related controversies. The judiciary, the prosecuting authority, intelligence services, the police and chapter 9 institutions have all been infected.

Parliament has been affected for some time, but last week was significant because the state of the nation address was infected by the Zuma germ.

In time to come, we will look back on this day and realise its saddening significance.

The Sona is a serious affair despite the red carpet fashion parade. It is a day of serious business in which we should trust that the head of state has applied his mind to the state of the nation.

Although Zuma has generally used his addresses to practise his latest repertoire of giggles and show off his improving literacy, the rest of the country has continued to take the day seriously. It is a politically sacred day. But that all changed on Thursday.

We were told in a very direct way that, to protect Zuma from answering a simple question, Parliament was willing to forgo its sanctity, and the freedoms of citizens could be summarily curtailed.

Once the opposition members had left, national council of provinces chairperson Thandi Modise apologised to the nation for the scenes that had taken place. She also apologised to Zuma, the prime cause of the problem.

The president then took to the podium – but before he started speaking, he giggled.

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