Mondli Makhanya

Zuma era has raped our dignity

2017-02-12 06:06
Mondli Makhanya, City Press editor in chief

Mondli Makhanya, City Press editor in chief

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Decorating the parliamentary precinct during the state of the nation address (Sona) week was a beautiful mural depicting these addresses since the birth of our republic.

The pictures encapsulate the sense of occasion that always accompanies the opening of Parliament. You get a sense of dignity, celebration, solemnity, joy, ceremony, seriousness, power, culture and diversity. The mural gives you a warm feeling and reminds you why we do this annual ritual of celebrating our democracy, and why – in spite of the cost and criticisms – it should be a fixture on the national calendar.

Then you get to 2009, the start of the Jacob Zuma era. There is a photograph of the president, the deputy president and the presiding officers of the national legislature. What is most striking about this photograph is that the president is accompanied by his three wives. (This was before he went shopping for more). It is jarring. It heralds the beginning of our rapid slide into indignity.

Fast-forward to 2015. There is a picture of the president walking into the National Assembly with MPs standing, as protocol demands.

As fawning governing party MPs clap, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members remain seated, scornfully glaring at the man who has just entered the chamber.

We remember now that this was the day of the signal jamming, the introduction of the white-shirted thugs and Zuma addressing a nearly half-empty house. Indignity was cemented on that day.

If you had any doubt that Zuma’s legacy would be that of breaking the dignity of the republic, the events of Sona 2017 would have put paid to that.

Thursday night was horrible. You could feel a sinking mood throughout that searing Cape summer day.

Cape Town had the feel of a city under siege. Police units armed with heavy weaponry and kilometres upon kilometres of razor wire had set up camp in various open spaces in the City Bowl, preparing for whatever enemy was about to invade.

The city centre was crawling with armed men in uniform, manning the ring of steel that had been set up the day before. The military was in town, lurking all over the show in their menacing armoured vehicles and weapons of war. Helicopters hovered above.

Public servants were being sent home early, and, on some usually busy streets, the shop shutters were down. By lunchtime, hawkers were packing their goods and writing off the day.

The day of the celebration of our democracy had been turned into a day of armed strength and a day of panic.

That night in the House of Assembly, the dignity, morality and humanity of our constitutional republic received further deadly blows. When a straightforward request for a minute’s silence for the more than 100 Life Esidimeni health scandal victims was turned down by the presiding officers, simply because it came from an opposition party, it marked a new low in partisanship.

What made it worse was the anger with which the ANC benches reacted to the request, and the applause with which they greeted the decision to turn it down.

The members of the party of “105 years of selfless struggle” just could not rise above themselves to honour the victims of the tragedy, most of whom were black and poor. As National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete put it, it was more appropriate to “proceed with the business of the House as planned” and postpone the mourning for a week.

Even in Iceland it would be hard to find a colder and more inhumane attitude.

The language spoken in the House dragged the dignity further down the tubes.

With words like tsotsi, scoundrel, thief, criminal, menemene and sela being used to describe their leader, some Zuma loyalists could not contain themselves and hurled back insults. Racists, dogs, f**k you and sh*t were some of the stones they lobbed back.

Then came the inevitable moment, the one that the nation will remember the 2017 Sona by. The violent scenes were the most vile we have witnessed since parliamentary sittings became a television must-see. Even those voyeurs who stock up on liquor and meat in anticipation of great viewing would have had their citizen souls deeply pained by what they saw.

The only people who seemed not to be pained were the ANC MPs, who clapped and laughed while their once-hallowed chamber was invaded by heavies, who beat up their fellow parliamentarians.

And, of course, the president couldn’t hide his signature giggle as the events unfolded.

Glass shards in the corridors and broken windows and picture frames bore witness to a battle that had continued outside the House and would continue into the rest of 2017.

On the concourse there was an eerie atmosphere. Policemen in riot gear stood in formation, waiting for orders to do heaven knows what. Their commanders stood in a huddle, presumably discussing tactics for heaven knows what. Opposition leaders who had either been kicked out or walked out of the House held impromptu press conferences in the dark about this dark day.

Inside the House, Zuma delivered his droning address as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Few really cared what he was saying. The ANC benches were a sea of bored faces. They resembled hostages inside a torture chamber being forced into submission by being compelled to watch Lillian and Desmond Dube flogging Clientele Life products.

Many played with their phones and some doodled on their notebooks. A significant number dozed off. Soon-to-be-father Mandla Mandela’s eyes were shut much of time, but it is unclear whether he was sleeping or thinking about the miracle of conception.

The following morning, Zuma delivered his real state of the nation address in the company of those with whom he has raped South Africa’s dignity. He was his real self when he spoke at a Gupta-sponsored breakfast, saying the things that the sculptors of his Sona speech would not let him say. The tone of investor confidence-building was tossed out the window just 12 hours after the scripted speech in which he had balanced radical economic transformation rhetoric with practical governance programmes.

Here he put on his Gupta servant hat and lashed out at the perceived enemies of his masters – the evil banks, which saw fit to stop their institutions from being used by that family for nefarious purposes. There was no opposition to interject.

In much of the commentary about Thursday night’s violent episode there was reference to how foreign perceptions of our democracy would be affected when the visuals went global, as they did.

But that should not be our main concern.

Our primary concern should be about how we dig ourselves out of this state of indignity into which we jumped in 2009. This state in which the corrupt and amoral are mainstream and the upstanding are seen as disrupters. The state in which our house of laws pays lip service to the Constitution and the apex court that enforces that sacred contract. Where securitisation and militarisation are being normalised and where the lines of separation of powers are being blurred. We should be concerned about the stripping of the dignity of our institutions for the sake of someone whose wishes and personal interests they were all there to serve.

In good time, Zuma will be gone. Whether the exit is dignified or not may no longer be up to him or his lieutenants. There is an angry nation that wants its dignity back and a historically noble party whose genuine members and elders want to restore its dignified face. That is the mood in South Africa right now. It was palpable this week.

South Africans want Parliament to be a real house of laws and a voice for their aspirations and needs. They want to see a governing party that does its job, an opposition that offers alternatives and the possibility of change. They want a society that aspires to the Constitution’s injunction that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”.

They long for the dignity of their country to be respected again.

Read more on:    sona 2017  |  jacob zuma  |  mondli makhanya  |  politics
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