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[OPINION] Paralysis at the heart of the state and in Parliament

On Thursday President Zuma wrapped up a tumultuous week in Parliament as he replied to the debate on his State of the Nation Address (Sona). It was a reply delivered haltingly and again, Zuma appeared disconnected from the text even while speaking of such crucial matters as education. But we have come to expect that.

The debate often descended into name-calling and shouting and was underwhelming, to say the least. That has been the tenor of the week, so why would it change during the debate?

Zuma’s deployment of soldiers and the unprecedented security around Parliament this year sent a chilling message that those who dare oppose him will feel the weight of the state security apparatus. Some serious questions need to be asked about the deployment of the SANDF to Parliament lest this become ‘the new normal’. Which units of the SAPS and the SANDF were deployed to Parliament this year for Sona, the number deployed and the reason for deployment are but three key questions we need answers to. The Speaker of Parliament and the president both need to clarify their roles in securitising Parliament.

Parliament as an institution has been damaged, perhaps irreparably.

On the one hand there is an unaccountable, corrupt president whose party seems incapable of dealing with his constitutional deviance. This has created a paralysis not only at the heart of the State but also in Parliament. On the other hand, however, there is the EFF determined to continue the tired politics of spectacle and create an intolerable situation in Parliament.

The EFF came to Parliament spoiling for the fight and while it is so that Zuma has breached the Constitution and has not been properly held to account, their disruptive strategy has its limits. The EFF cannot expect to gain through disruption what it cannot gain through the ballot box. As the F-word was flung liberally around the House during the fracas, the Speaker’s role has again come under scrutiny, and rightly so.

Baleka Mbete’s position as Speaker has long been untenable. She is the chair of the ANC and also has political ambitions to become president. Alarming as such a thought may be, and perhaps she is suffering from delusions of grandeur as Malema tried to remind her, she simply cannot be neutral or even show any semblance of impartiality. So every ruling made by Mbete is tainted by her own bias, or perceived bias. Her refusal to allow the minute of silence for the Life Esidimeni victims was churlish, but also her failure to even consider it showed only her consistent aim to cover for either Zuma or an ANC government which has lost its sense of decency. It would go a long way to dissolving some of the tensions in Parliament should Mbete be replaced by someone with less raw political ambition.

President Jacob Zuma responds to a debate in Parliament. Picture: GCIS

For a country straining under the weight of inequality and a myriad challenges, the solution now seems to be ‘radical economic transformation.’ For its part, Zuma and the ANC have kept spinning the yarn post-Sona.

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti echoed this as he emphasised land redistribution in the Sona debate on Tuesday. Nkwinti has promised to “Undertake a pre-colonial audit of land ownership, use and occupation patterns. Once the audit has been completed, a single law should be developed to address the issue of land restitution without compensation. The necessary constitutional amendments should be undertaken to effect this process”.

It would mean an amendment to s25(2) of the Constitution. Just last year the Expropriation Act was passed which allows the State to expropriate land in the ‘public interest’. Quite how ‘radical’ the ANC government is prepared to be on land remains to be seen.

It certainly was not reflected in other parts of Zuma’s speech. He asked, “What do we mean by radical socio-economic transformation? We mean fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female, as defined by the governing party which makes policy for the democratic government”.

That is all familiar territory for the ANC. Much of what Zuma spoke of seems pretty much the same as what we have heard all along related to changing ownership patterns, real empowerment and the creation of a class of black industrialists.

Zuma in response to the debate offered a few platitudes and repetition of what he had said last Thursday.
Ultimately, it will be up to ministers to now implement the ‘radical economic transformation’ the president spoke of. On land, Zuma said any restitution would have to take place within the law, he lamented the alleged collusion by banks in manipulating the value of the rand and also told us the Sassa matter was being dealt with by National Treasury and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, even as the two are locked in paralysis regarding a new service provider.

And so it rambled on. While Zuma lamented the chaos of last Thursday night, asking that ‘democratic mechanisms’ be used instead of violence and constant interruption, there was no mention of allegation regarding ‘state capture’ and what he plans to do about those. It all ended yesterday with Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu calling, “Hands off ANC, hands off our leadership, hands off President Zuma”. Zulu, the epitome of a party hack, spends a lot of time fending off Zuma’s critics. She was after all the one who nearly went to fisticuffs outside the National Assembly in 2015 in defence of her boss.

And so Zuma closed the book on Sona 2017, possibly the most over-rated event of our political calendar. We now look to the embattled Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan to try to make financial sense of what Zuma has said - and to provide us with the real state of the nation.

_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judithfebruary

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