Ask an expert: SONA – politics as theatre

24 March 2015
Chaos in Parliament.
Chaos in Parliament.

The chaotic State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 12 February 2015 probably said more about the real state of the nation than did President Jacob Zuma's address. It also revealed, in a very public way, the rickety platform on which democracy, leadership and accountability teeter. Members of UCT's academic community reflect on moments that stand out in their memory.

Unconstitutional behaviour

Professor Pierre de Vos, Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance in the Faculty of Law

"First, [SONA] was striking for what I will not remember: namely, anything said by President Jacob Zuma in his State of the Nation Address. This is partly because other events detracted attention from it, and partly because speeches delivered in Parliament seldom have a direct and meaningful impact on the lives of ordinary people. It's politics as theatre ...

"Second, the scrambling of the cell phone signal and the clumsy attempts to explain this away as a glitch were striking for what they said about how security agencies overestimate the powers they have in terms of the law and the Constitution, and how clumsy and amateurish they have been in trying to cover up their bumbling over-reach.

"Third, the admission by the presiding officers that they had outsourced the security of Parliament to security agencies — in contravention of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliaments and Provincial Legislatures Act — was striking for what it said about their ineptitude, and their willingness to invite a breach of the separation of powers.

"The Power, Privileges and Immunities Act (especially the part that allows security forces to arrest those who disrupt proceedings in Parliament) must be amended to remove any legal uncertainty. The Constitution prohibits any MP from being arrested for anything he or she says in Parliament, and this must be clarified.

"Was SONA a watershed moment? The apocryphal story about Chinese premier Zhou Enlai comes to mind. When asked in the 1970s what he thought of the French revolution of 1789, he is famously reported to have said, 'It's too early to tell.'"

Speaker for the National Assembly Baleka Mbete and chair of the National Council of Provinces Thandi Modise confer with a parliamentary adviser during SONASpeaker for the National Assembly Baleka Mbete and chair of the National Council of Provinces Thandi Modise confer with a parliamentary adviser during SONA


On language lost and no translation

Dr Tessa Dowling, African Languages Section in the School of Languages and Literatures

"Seventy percent of our population has an African language as a first language and 40 percent of our population can't speak English; and yet the Pedi praise singer's words weren't given English, Zulu, or Venda subtitles — or subtitles in any other language — so it was merely used for 'decorum'; to symbolise 'Africanness', and not to actually convey meaning to the majority of the population.

"Zuma's speech was largely in English and subtitled into African languages. When he did use the occasional Zulu word — for example, Bakwethu (our people) — it was just to add a little African flavour.

"The argument might be that there are so many languages in South Africa that one cannot choose one over the other. The fact is that these languages can be divided into two language groups (Nguni and Sotho); and sub-titling and interpretation should be provided in these languages if the president does not speak them.

"Sign-language interpretation was provided, so why not Tswana or Xhosa or Zulu interpretation? What about people who have a keen interest in politics but who cannot speak English?

"Zuma would have been better off speaking Zulu (by far the biggest language group in South Africa), but it would seem in South Africa there is no respect for African-language-speakers — and somehow, resorting to English allows for more insincerity and obfuscation."

The Address of the State of the NationThe Address of the State of the Nation by UCT alumnus Jonathan Shapiro (aka editorial cartoonist Zapiro): "SONA 2015 will be remembered as the night Parliament lost even more of its historic glamour, and constitutional democracy took a bit of a hammering. It will not be remembered for anything Zuma said, promised or envisioned."


Parliament becoming 'real'

Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, senior lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media Studies and director of the African Cinema Unit

"First, it brought the esoteric elements of Parliament into sharp public focus. At the same time, many people knew that Nkandla and the issue of 'the money' was a relatively minor concern with rolling blackouts looming and the nuclear deal lurking in the background.

"I was also struck, once again, by Speaker Mbete's unsuitability and the fact that she had to hand off responsibility to someone else.

"The third [memorable] moment came during the eTV studio discussion. The anchor crossed to the galleries where a frantic correspondent was heard saying 'I need a fucking wide shot'. It wasn't so much that it was so obviously heard on public TV; it brought home the discrepancies between how SONA was being covered (in terms of camera and editing) and what was actually happening.

"For many people, Parliament as a physical space and an institution is far removed from their daily reality. The value of this conflict is that it perhaps made Parliament 'real' for many viewers, even if they watched it only on YouTube after news got out. I also think it's a good example of where discourse and context come into conflict with each other. The friction between the context of Parliament and parliamentary discourse reveals growing opposition to government policy and administration.

"What was more alarming than the interruptions was Zuma's own behaviour — and the insubstantial speech he proceeded to deliver. The chaos and his behaviour can be read either as complete dislocation from the current concerns of the state, or as extreme cynicism."

Journalists chanting "bring back the signal" after the cellphone signal was jammed in Parliament before the 2015 State of the Nation Address.Journalists chanting "bring back the signal" after the cellphone signal was jammed in Parliament before the 2015 State of the Nation Address.


A leadership crisis

Professor Walter Baets, director of the Graduate School of Business

"I see a leadership crisis on many levels. Leadership should be related to purpose (vision) and contribution (to society). I am not sure all the players [in Parliament] had that view.

"A second quality of leadership is accountability, and, with respect, this is really missing in South African politics. Who is accountable for what and to whom? And then, are our politicians 'feeling' that accountability and taking it?

"The third quality is responsibility: feeling society's need and considering it one's task to realise that vision and contribution to society.

"A last remark is that in South Africa, 'freedom of speech' is considered to be a free invitation to say whatever, about whomever, and no-one is responsible for what they say. Leadership requires one to be respectful to all."

Once the EFF were thrown out of Parliament during SONA 2015, there was a cheer from the ANC. And President Zuma, surrounded by security, chuckled.Once the EFF were thrown out of Parliament during SONA 2015, there was a cheer from the ANC. And President Zuma, surrounded by security, chuckled.


Three iconic incidents ... and a resignation

Associate Professor Richard Calland, director of the Democracy and Governance Research Unit in the Department of Public law

"Three events or incidents [stand out]: first, Ramaphosa's note to the Minister of State Security, which I have reason to believe contained an instruction to immediately halt the jamming of cellphone signals in the National Assembly.

"Second, President Zuma's decision to ignore what had happened with the removal of the EFF MPS from the Chamber, and to try and continue his State of the Nation Address as if nothing had happened — an extraordinary and inexplicable failure of political leadership.

"Third, the decision that Musi Maimane, the leader of the DA, took to lead his party from the Chamber on a matter of principle — whether the security forces that had entered the Chamber were members of the police or not.

"The speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, should resign; a group of political elders should be convened by an independent organisation to seek to find consensus about how to resolve political disputes such as those that led to the incident during SONA."


The unbearable lightness of women's rights

Tabeth Masengu, Democratic Governance Research Unit in the Faculty of Law

"One aspect I will remember is related to gender and governance. Apart from the mention of the opening of sexual offences courts to assist with crimes pertaining to women and children, there was nothing else concerning women's livelihoods.

"[There was] no specific mention of the continued scourge of gender-based violence, the gender discrimination women still face in the workplace, how the SMEs and the funds allocated to communities would equip and empower women, or the scarcity of women in higher echelons of government, private and public companies.

"While the president commended the Banyana Banyana captain [Sports Star of the Year] and the three young schoolgirls from Soweto [who attended the G20 summit in Australia], this was not enough to give an impression that ordinary women's hardships are recognised.

"SONA provided us with a watershed moment to stop and think about the threats to democracy in South Africa. As stated by Professor Anthony Butler at an Open Society Foundation for South Africa-organised post-SONA discussion, what occurred in Parliament was evidence of the real-life conflicts many communities face.

"There needs to be a concerted effort to protect Parliament and the separation of powers, so that the police and other state security officials do not encroach on that space in the name of security."


On the economics of SONA

Professor Haroon Bhorat, director of the Development Policy Research Unit in the School of Economics

"On the 'economic SONA', we face a low-growth outlook for at least the next fiscal year, placing the economy onto a low-growth trajectory not seen since the third quarter of 2008. Lower growth inevitably starves the economy of jobs as well as limiting the fight against poverty and inequality.

"Lower growth also further constrains what the fiscus is able to do in terms of redistribution and poverty alleviation. This must mean that greater efficiency in fiscal spending is required.

"The threat of an imminent downgrade to our ratings in bond markets (potentially to 'junk status') — although unlikely — is a key signal to watch for, as it would be a game-changer for the domestic economy, and for our ability to raise equity in foreign markets to fund economic development."


Schizophrenic media

Emeritus Professor Ian Glenn, Centre for Film and Media Studies

"The arrogance of the securocrats who thought they could block communications strikes one at once as sinister and naïve. Whatever its faults, South Africa has quite a strong and vibrant media sector, and one wonders who in government thought they could get away with this — and with denying they had done it.

"[What also stands out is] the fact that Zuma showed no glimmer of statesmanship in addressing the complaints against him. His laughter at the expulsion of the EFF and the walkout of the other parties struck me and many others as partisan and unbecoming. One commentator drew a comparison with how Mandela made a point of greeting adversaries when he made his SONA speeches. The EFF really seem to have got under the ANC's skin.

"I don't think there is anything that can be done to an ANC that sees itself as having a majority mandate until voters turn against them, or parts of the ANC revolt. Perhaps the COSATU split will help.

"I suspect that the ANC bias of the Independent Group now means that they don't know what to do, and have reacted schizophrenically — see the Dov Fedler cartoon on the front page after the SONA speech. I think it may drive voters/viewers from having trust in the SABC, but I'm not sure this will amount to much. At least the media stood up against the signal blocking.

"I'm not sure how the average black voter and ANC supporter will feel after all this. I suspect Buthelezi spoke for many who found the EFF behaviour unseemly and impolite, but how are the media treating the EFF? This would be worth a study."


Sartorial politics

Professor Anthony Butler, head of the Department of Political Studies

"First, the EFF was dressed in red — and their sartorial politics is catching. The DA wore matching black suits and looked very much like a troupe that had escaped from the Cape Town Carnival. The police heavies were dressed as caterers, in black trousers and white shirts.

"Second, there was the 'signal-jamming' incident. It is difficult to see what this was intended to accomplish — perhaps it was meant to supplement censorship of television images of the forced removal of EFF MPs. (The TV feeds were manipulated to prevent the public seeing the invasion of the Chamber by the caterers.) Whatever the intention, the jamming (and then its lifting) suggest that the ANC is deeply divided, and confused, about the character of a democratic society.

"Third, shadowy men were seen, ludicrously, carrying a large box around the precincts of Parliament. The whole thing smacked of profound incompetence on behalf of state security operatives: a lack of operational capability so complete that it was almost mind-boggling. Recent intelligence leaks have confirmed the dire state and politicisation of our intelligence and state security systems.

"Finally, many — perhaps most — of the ANC MPs came out of the chamber celebrating the violent eviction of fellow MPs from the parliament. This is a useful indicator of the anti-democratic sensibilities of many of the governing party's MPs."


Compiled by Helen Swingler. Photos by David Harrison, Mail & Guardian

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