Sona postponement another notch in Zuma’s controversial belt

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President Jacob Zuma waves as he leaves Parliament. Picture: AP
President Jacob Zuma waves as he leaves Parliament. Picture: AP

Workers in the parliamentary precinct started disassembling makeshift stages that media houses use during the annual state of the nation address within minutes after the unprecedented announcement by Parliament bosses Baleka Mbete and Thandi Modise that Thursday’s event has been postponed.

About 30 members of Parliament’s own staff who joined the hastily convened press briefing on the steps of the National Assembly building looked stunned as the presiding officers ended their brief announcement and disappeared back into the building and off to their offices.

Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu and State Security Minister Bongani Bongo spoke in hushed tones five metres from where Mbete and Modise addressed journalists.

It is after all the first time in the democratic dispensation that Sona is postponed.

The only switch of Sona dates was in June 2014 when Zuma requested Parliament to bring the event forward by two days following his re-election as president.

It apparently clashed with an African Union summit but this was also during the period Zuma fell ill, was hospitalised and had to cut down on public appearances.

While Zuma’s future has been a subject of discussions and media headlines since the ANC’s 54th national conference on December 20, the postponement became the first official signal that Zuma may be on his way out.

Until around 2.35pm on Tuesday, Parliament was abuzz with activity; men in overalls putting up the makeshift stages, media officers updating lists of journalists to be allowed inside the House for the president’s speech, a red carpet rolled out in the Old Assembly building, all in preparation of the event.

“The state of the nation address is an important occasion in the national political programme of Parliament,” Mbete began the watershed announcement.

She made reference to the disruptions, anarchy and chaos that have characterised Sona over the past four years.

She also made reference to threats of further disruptions and calls for its postponement and because of these, the presiding officers had come to a conclusion that there is little likelihood of an uneventful joint sitting of Parliament on Thursday.

“With this in mind, we decided to approach the President of the Republic to propose that we postpone the joint sitting in order to create room for establishing a much more conducive political atmosphere in Parliament. When we met the president, we then learnt that he was already writing to Parliament to ask for the postponement of Sona,” said Mbete.

Modise later explained that they were still awaiting Zuma’s letter. A new date for Sona will be announced soon, they said, and Modise said their proposal was not to postpone by more than a week.

Political parties roundly welcomed the postponement, with the opposition claiming the development as their victory.

Speaking to City Press, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu alluded to the developments in the ANC among the reasons for the Sona postponement.

“You know the NEC is meeting tomorrow evening and after the meeting of the NWC [national working committee] yesterday and the many matters that the DSG [Jessie Duarte] spoke to today. Those are the political issues that need a resolution,” said Mthembu.

However, the ANC has since announced that the special NEC meeting has been postponed following “fruitful and constructive” discussions between Zuma and ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Mthembu said the issues raised by other parties in Parliament that it would not be acceptable for Zuma to deliver Sona were taken into consideration.

“We would like to move away from a Sona that is chaotic, that is disrupted or disruptive, and have a Sona that is in keeping with the sentiments that come with Sona. Many parties have said can all of us work towards this ideal,” said Mthembu.

In his first press statement as ANC national spokesperson, Pule Mabe said the party “notes and respects” Zuma’s decision in consultation with Parliament’s presiding officers to postpone the joint sitting.

Mabe said the ANC maintains its commitment to providing leadership to the country in a manner that reinforces confidence in public institutions such as Parliament.

“It is for this reason that the ANC caucus, represented by the chief whip, in the meeting of the presiding officers and all political parties, also motivated for the postponement of the scheduled joint sitting in light of the growing anxieties in the public domain,” said Mabe in the statement.

The DA’s John Steenhuisen said they were delighted about the postponement as they had been requesting it for a week and a half.

“It saves the institution of Parliament the farce that would have been a Zuma Sona [with] policies and programmes that would never be implemented. It would have amounted to fairytales,” said Steenhuisen, who also predicted that Zuma’s days in Parliament were coming to an end.

The EFF’s Godrich Gardee said the party welcomed the postponement of Sona, but reiterated its call for a motion of no confidence to be debated and convened before any Sona is held.

Gardee said they did not expect Zuma to resign and that a motion to remove him was still relevant.

He said Mbete had taken them into confidence during a short meeting she held with political parties about the interactions with the ANC.

Zuma emerged from Tuynhuis where he had earlier chaired Cabinet committee meetings exactly two hours after the news broke.

He waved at journalists, who in paparazzi-style had gathered around the perimeter fence that separates his parliamentary offices from the rest of Parliament.

He was driven off in the seven-car presidential convoy.

“He may be leaving the Tuynhuis for the last time,” quipped some of the gathered journalists and observers.

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