Mbete, Malema and Zuma: The Real Disrupters of the SONA

2015-02-13 15:45

Last night we all witnessed the most important annual event in our country turned into a messy, embarrassing affair. The State of the Nation Address is an event that is not only a celebration of a democratic society (in that it brings together the three organs of state in a beautiful manifestation of unity), but also an opportunity for the masses to learn what the government has in store for them for that year. It is an event known around the world for its formality and dignity. What we saw last night was the direct opposite: it exposed our nakedness to the people of the world and we have no reason to be proud.

  Of course, someone must be blamed and many people have decided that one party over the other should shoulder responsibility. However, I want to contend that the following people are to blame for last night’s mess.  

  1. The Honourable Baleka Mbete, MP (Speaker of the National Assembly)

Her Role: The Speaker has a dichotomous role to play as the Head of the legislative arm of the Republic. Firstly she is the face and custodian of the noble law-making process and embodies the very ideals of a democracy as she leads people’s representatives from all over the country. Secondly, she must also see to it that meetings and programmes of this body are conducted in a manner becoming of an august body such as Parliament.

What to Consider: As a point of departure, we must contend that there was not much she could do when faced with an angry, boisterous horde of angry MPs but to expel them from the sitting. And really what else could she do but call in the Sergeant-At-Arms to act when her wishes were not being adhered to? In trying to chair the sitting and maintain decorum she had to act and do so decisively.

Why she must be blamed: The Speaker seemed out of her depth and appeared not to know the Rules of the House she leads. She was found wanting when it came to technical arguments and was out-maneuvered by her fellow members from the DA, EFF and even Naledi Pandor from the ANC who quoted rule after rule to make their claim. Instead of using the age-old art of debate and persuasion that is the very backbone of Parliament, she assumed the role of an authoritative, dictatorial matriarch.

As things briefly descended into arnarchy, the voice of reason from the Speaker was missing.

  What she should have done: In making her rulings she should have taken the time to articulate her position so that when the Walkout happened (which was inevitable any which way) she would have, at the very least, won the hearts and minds of the House, its guests and the viewers at home. Where Mbete’s iron-fist approach clearly exacerbated the escalating tensions, Thandi Modise’s (the other presiding officer) calmer approach earned her respect and literally calmed the situation.  

  1. The Honourable Julius Malema, MP (Leader, Economic Freedom Fighters) and EFF MPs

His Role: The role of Malema is that of leading his party. The EFF made #PayBackTheMoney a strategy and Malema had to lead this programme. However, as a member of parliament he owes his allegiance, first and foremost, to the Parliament of the Republic and all its rules and conventions and as an elected representative is accountable to all the people of South Africa and not just those who voted for him.

What To Consider: Without getting into the merits of his case or whether he is right or wrong. Malema’s commitment to his cause is commendable. They have presented themselves as a force to be reckoned with in parliament and have, in the process, raised many critical policy questions.

Why He Must Be Blamed: As an MP, Malema has a responsibility to respect Parliament’s rules and procedures even if he doesn’t agree with them and even if his party has decided the other way. However, Malema and Co sought to bully Parliament and threatened to disrupt the House’s proceedings to get what they wanted. This is gross immaturity and has delegitimized their struggle (to get the President to #PayBackTheMoney). Malema has made the almost-sacred legislative Houses of this Republic to be his own personal tantrum-throwing spaces and now the entire country must be subjected to his wishes whether they agree to them or not. If Malema cannot handle the processes and dignity of the National Assembly, he should find other means to express his burning opinions like art or music or the civil service or the military or gardening or full-time employment at the EFF headquarters.

  What he should have done: Malema, in pursuing his beliefs and mandate from the EFF could have found other means within the legislative framework to express them. The presiding officers of the House even promised a special session which would be dedicated specifically to the answering of questions. But this did not entice the EFF. Because clearly they are not at all interested in the answer more than they are interested in making as much noise about and attracting attention to the question itself.  

  1. His Excellency President Jacob Zuma (President of the Republic)

His Role: The role of the President is that of Head of the Government and State. It is in his latter role (as Head of State) that he invites the two houses of the legislative arm as well as the judicial arm as well as the government arm and other groups in society to hear his plans for the upcoming year. He is not a member of Parliament, but is accountable to the people of the Republic through it.

What to consider: As per convention and precedence, the President does not answer questions during the State of the Nation. This is precedence around the world since time immemorial and was not recently conjured to protect Zuma. Minister Jeff Radebe (whom I like to refer to as the Deputy Deputy President) clarified that since Zuma addresses the joint sitting as the Head of State (and not in his other role as Head of Government) he is not empowered to answer Government questions. There is truth to this: it is Cyril Ramaphosa, as the Leader of Government Business, who accounts to Parliament on Government-related questions and not Zuma. (The same applies to the United Kingdom where it is the Queen who delivers their Speech from the Throne (Their SONA) and not the Prime Minister). It then follows that opposition parties have the prerogative to ask questions from the President himself at predetermined periods during the year and not when they so wish (even if the question is burning sulfuric fires deep in their hearts).

Why He Must Blamed: Although not an active protagonist in yesterday’s daycare-style brouhaha, President Zuma’s undue benefit from the R240 million upgrade to his homestead is the sole reason we are here. He is the choirmaster who, although has his back to the audience so that you don’t fully see his role, is the one who brings everything together. Baleka is only in this position because she must defend this man and Malema is in this position because of the very same man. Everything can be traced back to President Zuma

Perhaps you don’t see the whole fuss about this. But you should. Yesterday is not just about the disruption to the SONA (an event we can do without really), but clear evidence that people can happily and willingly exploit state institutions for their benefit. In this, Malema, who abused Parliament, is no different to the man he accuses of abusing his power. Yesterday was a reminder of how people can manipulate state resources and organs. Sometimes it’s municipalites and parastatals being abused. Yesterday the sanctity of our very own Parliament was abused. What’s next?

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