ANALYSIS | 5 talking points from the SONA debate

President Cyril Ramaphosa and deputy president David Mabuza at SONA on 13 February. (Edrea du Toit, Rapport)
President Cyril Ramaphosa and deputy president David Mabuza at SONA on 13 February. (Edrea du Toit, Rapport)

In the past week, the debate on President Cyril Ramaphosa's State of the Nation Address (SONA) made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Behind the bluster and political point-scoring, however, there were some points of interest.

Reformers 1 – RET Forces 0

As opposition speakers, such as the DA's Natasha Mazzone and Geordin Hill-Lewis, pointed out, the biggest stumbling blocks to Ramaphosa's reform agenda sit behind him - in the ANC's very own benches.

However, during the debate this past week, none of the MPs associated with the fightback, or the ironically titled radical economic transformation (RET) agenda – corruption accused Bongani Bongo, Mosebenzi Zwane, Mervyn Dirks et al – had a chance to have their say, and none of the usual contrived RET talking points were raised by any ANC speakers.

In his well-received speech, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said: "South Africa finds itself at a point where hard political choices in state-owned enterprises and state agencies have to be made.

"In making those choices, the demands of the populists will not be met.

"As a matter of a historical record, we are taught that whenever reforms are introduced and decisions are made, to press the reset button of any nation, demagogues, and opportunists will always seek to seize the opportunity to mislead the masses."

While Lamola's speech was largely a missive at the EFF, this surely applies to the RET forces as well.

Then, when he responded on Thursday, Ramaphosa also sent a thinly veiled message to those who intend to continue their looting ways when he said: "We are determined that all those who have stolen from the people – and all those who continue to steal from the people – should face the full might of the law."

ANC must crack the whip

The disgraceful events of Tuesday – in which ANC MP Boy Mamabolo and EFF MP Julius Malema traded domestic abuse accusations, thereby politicising gender-based violence – was everything a people's parliament should not be. It was a vile display, the cheapest of political point-scoring.

But why was Mamabolo – who has a history beyond politics with the Malemas - allowed to repeat his stunt of last Thursday evening, when he made a similar accusation against Malema? And why did several ANC MPs, mostly backbenchers, raise points of order during Malema's speech?

READ | Boy Mamabolo apologises to Malemas: 'I was wrong'

They played right into the belligerent EFF leader's hands, as Malema was clearly intent on debasing proceedings. (For more on that, see the next point). They met Malema on the low road, and he likes it there. He basically built it. That's where he is "in charge".

National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise showed last Thursday night that she would not dance to the EFF's tune.

But in the long run, Modise's patient, give-'em-enough-rope approach won't work if the majority party's backbenchers want to play by Malema's rules, which are much like the points in Whose Line is it Anyway – they're made up and don't really matter.

The ANC whippery needs to get their caucus in control. They were very disciplined last Thursday evening during the SONA and it worked in their favour.

ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina is fairly new to the National Assembly. She only became a member after last year's election, having been a MEC in the Eastern Cape. Her deputy, Doris Dlakude, though, has long been serving in that position.

They will just have to reign in their caucus's wayward MPs, otherwise, they'll be sucked into a game they won't win. With dire consequences for all of us.

'Honourable Malema, you're not running the House'

Not only did EFF leader Malema claim almost all of the EFF's allotted time for himself on Tuesday (and EFF MPs applauded their führer when chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Amos Masonda announced that this would be the case) and play his part in Disgraceful Tuesday, he also declared "I'm in charge!" during what Lamola aptly described as a megalomaniac's monologue.

The EFF's sullying of parliamentary proceedings is nothing new. In the Jacob Zuma days, one could argue that Zuma hid from accountability behind parliamentary procedure, propped up by the ANC's majority.

But that argument doesn't hold water anymore.

What is clear, is that Malema craves attention and power.

Breaking Parliament is one way to achieve both.

In the Fifth Parliament, despite all their shenanigans, EFF MPs hammered on the EFF's policy positions.

But that was before the VBS scandal broke. While they still possess the ability to sway the national debate – as FW de Klerk found out the hard way – they have basically been a non-entity in Parliament the past year, with their leadership seemingly preoccupied with other things.

After last Thursday's SONA disruptions and Disgraceful Tuesday, the EFF is clearly isolated from the other parties in Parliament. 

Several ANC MPs went into full attack mode, calling the EFF fascists - a description the DA used against the party in the past. 

Stern action from both houses of Parliament's Powers and Privileges Committees is expected, as is rule changes, which will limit the EFF's room to sow chaos in the house.

It must be pointed out that during Wednesday's sitting for the debate, and Ramaphosa's response, the EFF were mostly model MPs. 

Perhaps Masondo's message during Malema's performance on Tuesday sunk in: "Honourable Malema, you're not running the House."

The DA's policy conference can't come soon enough

DA interim leader John Steenhuisen has been clear that he wants the party to engage on policy, rather than continue bashing the ANC. However, the debate on SONA showed little departure from the type of contributions the DA dished up in the past.

Sure, the doom and gloom were toned down a little, there were fewer cries of "CRISIS!". Steenhuisen himself and DA MP Siviwe Gwarube presented the DA's alternative for universal health care to the ANC's national health insurance. DA MP Kevin Mileham presented the DA's solutions on how to deal with Eskom. Hill-Lewis took the ANC on with eviscerating clarity with regard to the economy, albeit on the level of economic principles or ideology rather than on the nitty-gritty level of policy.

But, overall, they didn't establish the "clear blue water" they wanted on a policy level between themselves and the ANC.

This might well be because of the leadership uncertainty going into an elective conference, and even more so because they are heading into a policy conference, leaving them without a policy-hymn sheet to sing from.

Back to reality

In the past, ANC speeches in these debates presented a nauseating gap between reality and whatever the honourable member of the governing party at the podium was going on about.

Typically, an ANC speech would have a long history lesson about the liberation movement, the big strides made since the dawn of democracy, some rehashing of what the president said, a few shots at the DA, and if time allowed, some more history. There was a time when "a good story to tell" was the refrain.

However, this time out, the gap between reality and the speeches closed considerably, quite possibly taking a cue from Ramaphosa's blunt assessment of the economy in his SONA.

For instance, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu gravely said of South Africa's water scenario: "The situation is dire."

And Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy certainly didn't sugarcoat the implications of climate change for South Africa.

The speeches, mostly delivered by ministers or their deputies, were by and large technocratic, setting out plans. There could, naturally, have been more detail and a greater sense of urgency.

But at least the phrase "a good story to tell" has seemingly been buried.

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