Melanie Verwoerd

The day the president finally showed weakness

2016-09-28 05:45

Melanie Verwoerd

Sitting in Parliament recently, watching President Jacob Zuma stumble through his most recent Question Time, I could not help to think that the cracks are finally showing. None of the usual giggles were there and none of his bravado could save him. It was the day when he showed weakness and uncertainty for the first time.

Interestingly, MPs were confident that proceeding would not erupt into the chaos we have come to expect when the EFF and President are in each other’s company. The speaker had agreed that a motion by EFF’s Floyd Shivambu on the state of affairs at SAA, could be debated on the same day. Strategically it was to follow the president’s question time, presumably to ensure that the EFF would not again disrupt the President to the point where they would be thrown out of the chamber, thus not being able to speak to their own motion.

It seemed to work at first. MPs from Cope took to the floor to object to Zuma’s presence and left the chamber. The EFF seemed remarkably calm even as the speaker told Julius Malema to sit down when he raised a few constitutional points around the president and the Nkandla judgment. For a few seconds it looked as if he would listen to the speaker and that she for once had matters under control. But then, as usual, Baleka Mbete got distracted by a note from the parliamentary adviser. Malema, with his admirable ability to make rousing speeches off the cuff, utilised the opportunity to the full. By the time the speaker focussed on him again, he was in no mood to stop.

The ANC was screaming at Malema, who clearly enjoyed it and repeatedly called the president a criminal. The Speaker tried to shout louder, but that only provoked the members even more. Eventually Malema stopped and agreed to sit down, presumably not wanting to be thrown out. There were more points of order from other parties and then Shivambu raised one. Agreed it was not really a point of order, but then again these days very few are. The speaker told him to sit down, but like many before him, he insisted on a ruling. Suddenly, like an exasperated mother who had had enough, she ordered Shivambu to leave the chamber.

There was an audible gasp from the gallery. “What did he do wrong?” asked a woman in an ANC T-shirt in front of me – a question Shivambu rightly asked the speaker as well. But Mother Baleka was in no mood to answer. The reason was clearly because she said so. In protest the EFF left the chamber voluntarily so that they could return for the SAA debate later, albeit without Shivambu. The Chief-Whip of the DA, not wanting to be upstaged by the EFF, also raised a point of order, calling the president and his actions repugnant.

I looked over at the president who had, for the 35 minutes it took Mbete to regain control, sat behind the podium in the centre of the chamber. He struck a lonely figure, like a child made to sit on the naughty chair. As insults were thrown at him, he seemed to slide deeper down in the bench, almost disappearing behind the podium. When he finally got to answer the questions, he read the prepared responses in his halting manner. Follow-up questions were mainly left unanswered and it all became rather boring. Minister Jeff Radebe, nodded off a few times. Bathebile Dlamini chewed nuts whilst paging through photos on her iPad (note to MPs: the public in the gallery can see what you are doing on your iPads). Other ANC MPs were texting or reading.

This was nothing new, but it struck me that the ANC caucus was simply not defending their president. He was on his own and it seemed that he felt it. There were none of the usual giggles. He was angry and annoyed, but kept his feelings under control until fairly close to the end. “I am saying there is no war in government”, he responded to a question about Treasury. (Pravin Gordhan did not look up from a document on his desk.)  “Cyril Ramaphosa said there was”, heckled a member of the opposition. “You must ask Cyril Ramaphosa then,” the president snapped back and glared briefly in the direction of the Deputy President.

Question time expired shortly after, but instead of immediately retreating to his office as usual, the President stayed at the podium. He was visibly angry. A silence descended on the House. Then he spoke. He was tired of being insulted and attacked when he came to the House, he said. Something had to be done; otherwise he would rather not come back.

And so thanks to one of his big allies, Baleka Mbete, and her inability to control the proceedings, we finally saw a crack in the president’s rock hard veneer of calm denialism. Can it be that he is feeling the pressure of the divisions in the ANC under his leadership, or the impact of the ongoing saga with Pravin Gordhan on our economy, or the endless series of scandals around people close to him?

Perhaps, but recent proceedings raised a few frightening questions around Zuma, his successor and Parliament.

Firstly: Baleka Mbete is increasingly being mentioned as a possible successor for Jacob Zuma. Apparently she is very popular amongst the ANC Premier League. The ANC Women’s League wants a woman next time round, so presumably they will support her too. But what she demonstrates for all to seeis that she cannot run Parliament. And if you cannot run a parliament, how can you run a country?

Secondly, Zuma, possibly for the first time, allowed the opposition’s criticism to get to him. He looked like a man under pressure and he allowed the opposition to see weakness. But as we know from Nenegate, when he is under pressure or fearful of showing weakness, the president does not react well. He hits back. Of course as in the case of Pravin Gordhan, he leaves the dirty work to his foot soldiers. So what will they do next?

Thirdly, I wonder what the Speaker will do in reaction to the president’s outburst? She already wants the visitors in the public gallery to be kept behind a bullet-proof Perspex barrier, much like criminals in some countries. So how far will she go to gain control over MPs?

Only time will tell.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    anc  |  eff  |  baleka mbete  |  jacob zuma  |  floyd shivambu  |  julius malema

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