Andrew Donaldson

The brute farce that was our state of the nation

2015-02-13 11:22

Andrew Donaldson

The President was trying to begin his State of the Nation address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of the Provinces - indeed, the entire country - and the public address system had gone on the blink.

. . . tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. . .

Jacob Zuma stood at the podium alone, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around him, a man transfixed in the gaze of millions...and nothing happened. He tapped his microphone with yet more urgency. Silence.

Because it looked as if he was chiding someone, Zuma’s finger action momentarily called to mind a long-gone predecessor, PW Botha. Or perhaps more appropriately, Botha’s famous imitator, Pieter-Dirk Uys – for we were by now well into the realm of brute farce.

Element of irony

Speaker Baleka Mbete’s microphone was however working, and she was able to apologise for the technical problems. “The glitches are because of the withdrawal of the labour of some of the members of [the National Education, Health and Allid Workers Union],” she said. Though not on strike, some members of the public sector union had withdrawn all voluntary services during the address.

There was an element of irony in all this which was not lost on the press gallery. All cellular reception in the National Assembly had been digitally jammed, a deliberately crude but nevertheless technologically sophisticated act of censorship. And yet the simple matter of getting the president’s microphone to work seemed too higher grade for the authorities, and from the floor there came a lone, jeering call: “Freedom of expression!”

Moments later, Zuma’s tapping produced the desired result – . . . tap-tap-dof, dof, DOF, DOF! – and he began his address. This was at 19:21. Up to this point the day had been ugly but manageable. That was now about to change for the worst.

The day’s troubles began with the Economic Freedom Fighters - and it ended with them. Hours earlier, at the Cape Sun hotel, party supporters loyal to leader Julius Malema had attacked EFF MP and “land commissar” Andile Mngxitama at a press briefing which was abandoned.

It remains unclear what Mngxitama’s briefing was about. But as he fled the hotel, with the Malema faction in hot pursuit, he was able to declare, with apparent conviction, that “this is [the] thuggish behaviour that has become part of the EFF”.

There was still much speculation about the incident at 16:00, when dignitaries started arriving at Parliament. EFF spokesperson Mbuyesi Ndlozi had a busy time of it here, shortly after the red carpet was rolled out, telling anyone who thrust a camera or dictaphone in his face that, no, it wasn’t the party that was unravelling, confused or divided, but rather Mngxitama.

Fashion parade

No state of the nation coverage would be complete without some mention of what was worn by dignitaries. This is despite veteran journalist Max du Preez’s feelings on the matter.

Sorry, Max. This is our work, and we do it for pay. So here goes. There were strong contenders in the bizarre headgear category. This is in addition to the EFF’s hard hats and their crimes against the beret. It beggars belief that someone like Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who spends a fortune on her appearance – and her body-hugging gold-and-black striped “angry bee” sheath of a dress was no exception – should persist with a wig that resembles the roadkill raccoon that is the Davy Crockett hat. The winner, though, was Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s weird bird’s nest of red feathers in his hair. What gives?

The award for the looniest outfit of the day went to ANC MP Mandla Mandela. As befitting his status as the chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council he opted for “traditional”. The top – a black jacket with white epaulettes and cuffs with colonial nautical trim – was in the tradition of Pirates of Penzance, and the bottom – sandals and a white wraparound skirt – something usually associated with German tourists of advanced years in Ibiza. So, half-admiral, half-Somali hijacker, the effect was definitely something from Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief.

The most striking outfits, however, were the black-and-white uniforms worn by members of the Parliamentary Protection Unit. They looked like waiters at a posh restaurant – although not the sort you’d want to mess with should the soup be cold. They cut an intimidating, threatening presence as they strode across the red carpet and into the parliamentary buildings. Hitler, I noted, had his Brown Shirts and both Mussolini and Oswald Mosley’s British fascists had their Black Shirts. Were these our White Shirts?

By this time, about 17:30, we made our way into the buildings. As we did so, word began to reach us from inside that there was no cellphone reception in the press gallery. By the time I’d found a seat at the edge of a very crowded gallery, hard up against a section of the gallery where the diplomats were seated, that word had grown into a low growl that our phones were being blocked.

Dark rumours vs facts

The first words I typed in my laptop were: “5.37pm. Dark rumours of signal jamming. . .” A man to my left, looking over my shoulder, said, “Oh no, my friend. I’m afraid it’s not a dark rumour at all. It’s very much a fact.” It was the genial Israeli ambassador, Arthur Lenk. Okay, dark fact it is.

There followed some running around to get clarification on this matter. It was possible, we discovered, to get some reception in the men’s toilets on the north-eastern corner of the building, and soon its plummy confines were filled with angry journalists answering concerned calls from their editors.

Now and then, dignitaries and guests would enter and look on bemused at the impromptu newsroom at the washbasins - I have a snap of EWN’s Stephen Grootes kneeling on the tiled floor, banging away at his laptop. At one stage, the former deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad entered and was instantly informed of the jamming. He immediately expressed his sternest outrage, but then maybe he had pressing matters to attend to. One didn’t want to be trapped with a full bladder mid-way through the interminable plod of a Zuma speech.

Presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj was spotted in the public gallery. We tried to get word to him about the jamming. He pretended not to hear. Or maybe he really is losing his hearing. Ronnie Momoepa, now Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, was loitering in the press gallery, holding forth like a garrulous Uncle Fester, the Addams Family character. So we urged him to do something useful and he duly barged his way through stuffed shirts and other dignitaries to Maharaj. After what seemed like an exceptionally jovial chit-chat, Momoepa returned with Maharaj’s suggestion that we take it up with the Speaker’s secretary.

That’s when we began chanting from the gallery, “We want the signal! We want the signal!” In the chamber, opposition MPs began to take up the chant as well. Ruling party MPs then began counter-chanting, “ANC! ANC!” The chanting died down, then erupted once more, when the premiers of the provinces entered the assembly. “Media freedom! Media freedom!” “ANC! ANC!” It was all very silly buggers.

Eventually, to loud cheers and chants of “Zuma! Zuma!”, the president entered the chamber, and we got down to business. DA chief whip John Steenhuisen rose to draw Mbete’s attention to the jamming of the cellphone feed.

“A device has been installed in the assembly,” he said, adding that it was a direct violation of the Constitution. He called on her to instruct whoever was responsible for that device to please turn it off, “and allow us to impart our ideas and viewpoints as the constitution, which was hard-fought for, allows for”.

A noticeably angry DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane added, “We simply cannot proceed unless we disconnect that blocking device! If you rule, Madame Speaker, that we must proceed with the blocking device on, we will challenge that ruling in Parliament and, if needs be, we will take this Parliament to court! Because that’s unacceptable!”

“As I said,” Mbete replied, “we will have the Secretary of Parliament look into it.”

“Now! Now! Do it now!” MPs chanted.

Unscrambling the scramble

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder was up next. “This has not happened in 20 years in Parliament! We were informed, Madame Speaker, by some senior members of the ruling party that they are not aware of this [blocking], that officials of Parliament are not aware of this. I’m under the impression that maybe the executive may have something to do with this. This is the highest legislative body in this country. In terms of the constitution, Ma’am, we cannot proceed unless we are an open society.”

Mbete then apparently relented, and requested the matter be looked into at once - and immediately turned on the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu, who had risen on point of order. “Please take your seat. Honourable Shivambu, I am talking, and while I am talking, you take your seat!”

A full 10 minutes passed before Mbete was able to report, with something of a smirk, “The issue of the scrambler has been unscrambled.” It was a strange announcement, I thought. No-one, up to that point, had referred to the device as a “scrambler” – and, if anything, the announcement probably served as an admission of sorts that she knew of its existence all along.

The next card up her sleeve, though, was an ace. And she produced it shortly after EFF MP Godrick Gardee rose, calling for a point of order moments after Zuma began his speech, and asked when the President would be paying back the money spent on his Nkandla home. After the heated exchanges that followed, Malema and Shivambu were ordered to leave the assembly.

They refused - and Mbete called for the goon squad. The White Shirts entered the chamber and scuffles broke out with EFF MPs as they were forced out. The diplomats next to me looked on in disbelief.

After that melee, Maimane demanded to know if any SAPS members had been involved in the action, and Steenhuisen told Mbete, “There were members with firearms who entered here while in session. You don’t meet bad behaviour with bad behaviour.”

But Thandi Modise, the chair of the National Council of Provinces, apparently thought that’s exactly how you dealt with bad behaviour. “We had repeatedly asked people to leave,” she said. “We are allowed to ask for security, whichever security, to act, in support. We should allow house to do its business.”

'That's what happens'

However there was not much in the way of business after that. The DA caucus left the assembly, but not before Buthelezi rose to express his extreme disappointment at what he had witnessed. “I think what we have seen today is disgusting, I think our country is being drawn to pieces. The struggle was not for this, we can’t have a few people tearing our country apart.”

Outside Parliament, Malema, overalls opened to reveal the torn vest beneath, told reporters that seven EFF MPs had been injured in the scuffles with the White Shirts and police and would be consulting lawyers. “That’s what happens in South Africa,” he said. “When people raise legitimate questions, they are assaulted, police are called upon to assault them, to arrest them. We are really happy with the courage of the DA that they took a stand against turning Parliament into a police state.”

Inside, the President was able to continue with his state of the nation address. But without an opposition present, it wasn’t really Parliament.


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Read more on:    julius malema  |  mmusi maimane  |  jacob zuma  |  baleka mbete  |  sona 2015

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