Running with the Buffalo: Can the opposition keep up?

President Cyril Ramaphosa after delivering his maiden State of the Nation Address. (Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams, Gallo Images)
President Cyril Ramaphosa after delivering his maiden State of the Nation Address. (Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams, Gallo Images)

One of Jacob Zuma's biggest thefts was robbing Parliament of meaningful debates on the issues affecting everyday South Africans like you and me.

Even though he only appeared in Parliament when he had to, a showerhead-shaped shadow continually hung over the place. In essence there were only two real debates the Fifth Parliament had up until now: who stole what from whom; and how big and smelly is the latest dump Msholozi had on the country.

While some committees functioned well, proceedings in the National Assembly were characterised by acrimony and a nasty adversarial approach, often lamented by opposition parties. With the ANC pulling ranks around its compromised, giggling president, the opposition had no choice but to play that game, leading to the EFF's brand of mayhem, and endless pontificating from the DA.

Much can change in a week.

If the first six days of the Ramaphosa presidency are anything to go by, South Africans might just get a Parliament that functions as it is supposed to.

The debate on Ramaphosa's first State of the Nation Address (SONA) and his response are clear indications that Parliament is on a different course. Without Jacob Zuma to kick around anymore (to re-appropriate a famous quote by Richard Nixon), the opposition couldn't run the same old plays they used previously. 

For instance, DA leader Mmusi Maimane won many fans with his "Broken man in a broken country"-speech of 2015. He followed this up with 2016's "Planet Zuma" and last year's "enemy of the people".

This year his speech was titled "We can fix South Africa", with the "we" apparently not only including the blue people. Other DA-firebrands like Phumzile van Damme and Natasha Mazzone also took a much less combative approach and DA chief whip John Steenhuisen toned down his customary roast of the governing party. Well, you can roast a butternut, but you must bake a cupcake, I guess.

While it seemed at Ramaphosa's election last Thursday that the EFF will stick to their guns as they raised some points of order before storming out of the National Assembly, they apparently also realised this approach won't see the light of day in Ramaphosa's new dawn. They were exemplary parliamentarians during SONA, and at the debate on Monday EFF leader Julius Malema's scowl was replaced with a warm smile, and their speeches were constructive rather than disruptive.

The smaller parties delivered their standard fare, albeit with the Zuma-bashing toned down, with the exception of Cope's leader Mosiuoa Lekota. His questions about land reform were drowned out by his overly emotional delivery and the accompanying laughter and scorn from the ANC benches.

There was also a change in the general slant of the ANC speeches. Previously the typical ANC speech consisted of a long history lesson accompanied by a list of the ANC's achievements in government, an attack on the opposition, and a quote or two from Nelson Mandela or other struggle heroes (last year no ANC speech was complete without a reference to Oliver Reginald Tambo). At this year's SONA debate the history lessons were shorter, and in some instances there was an eye on the future, best illustrated by Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel and Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Mcebisi Skwatsha's contributions. (Let's pretend Lindiwe Sisulu's speech didn't happen...)

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, who had a low profile for someone with her stature during the Zuma-years, was the last speaker, or "sweeper" in parliamentary jargon. She actually engaged with many of the points raised by the opposition, saying where she agreed and explaining where she differed.

Ramaphosa started his reply on Tuesday by appreciating everyone's contributions and commending everyone for the way in which they participated.

"What emerged clearly from the debate yesterday, is that all the members of this Parliament are committed to build a nation where progress is measured not by growth in gross domestic product or global competitiveness rankings, but by how the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised are changed for the better," he said.

With these words he gave the whole Parliament a common goal.

As in his SONA, he also made it clear that everyone must work together, with the understanding that there will be differences of opinion.

What this means is, if Ramaphosa keeps to his word and he has his party behind him, the debate in Parliament will be lifted from the quagmire of who stole what and what Msholozi did or did not do. It will become a battleground of ideas (as it should), instead of the game of "cowboys and crooks" it was the past few years, not forgetting that some crooks still need to be caught.

Opposition parties will have to up their game, Msholozi made it too easy for them. Being strong on corruption isn't a policy direction, it should be a given.

It's one thing being shown the middle finger by the likes of Mervyn Dirks, it’s another story altogether engaging on policy with Naledi Pandor.

It may come as a surprise, given their behaviour in the House of the past few years, but the EFF seems to be better geared for this "new" Parliament than the DA. They have no uncertainty about their ideology, and they are clear on their policies, as was illustrated when the EFF's Floyd Shivambu spoke in the SONA debate. Shivambu's proposals probably got the most attention in Ramaphosa's reply.

While questions remain about the feasibility of many of the EFF's socialist policies, at least it gives them a cogent platform to participate in the debate, and everybody knows where they stand with them.

There seems to be a bit of policy confusion in the DA – on the one hand they propose a larger social safety net, on the other hand they come up with a downright Thatcherite proposal to privatise state-owned enterprises. 

It seems that much of their overarching policy direction is informed by the doomed ideology of neoliberalism. Worldwide, more and more people are starting to see neoliberalism for what it is – a sham to get the rich richer and to hell with the rest. This is illustrated by the rise of figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the US and UK – once home to neoliberalism's biggest prophets (and profits), Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

While neoliberalism has since the eighties become the hegemonic ideology globally, with democratic South Africa largely following suit, it seems Ramaphosa wants to move out of this realm, and not a moment too soon, if you ask me.

While I don't doubt that the DA want to build the nation Ramaphosa described, they have much work to do on the policy front. If they don't participate in building Ramaphosa's envisaged nation and revert back to their atavistic "Fight back" days, it will surely hurt them at the ballot box and mean that they don't provide much needed input in the grand debate.

And this debate will need contributions from the left, right and centre, because it requires a whole new paradigm as classic socialism and classic neoliberalism clearly don't provide the answers to our most urgent questions, and the old school Keynesian welfare state needs some serious updating.

And we can't leave the building of a new society in the hands of one party, especially not the party that gave us Zuma.

- Jan Gerber is a politics reporter for News24. Follow him on Twitter: @gerbjan.

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

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