The problem with the state of the nation

Headlines on Tuesday morning tell us that all eyes are on President Jacob Zuma ahead of the State of the Nation address (Sona). The president is expected to make his first public appearance in more than a week. While his health has been the subject of a flurry of speculation, his speech is meant to spell out government's priorities for the rest of this year.

In itself, the speech is significant as Zuma's first address in a new administration. It's also been branded as the launch of the second phase of the country's transition.

If we are to go on past behaviour however, the most-discussed aspect of the night is not likely to be what the president says, but rather, the sartorial choices of our honourable MPs. And that is indicative of the way parliamentary procedure in South Africa has become vacuous, a theatrical performance with little substance or relevance to the experience of ordinary citizens.

And while the ceremony is meant to honour the president, it does feel rather exaggerated.

Workers are said to have cleared the ceremonial path in which Zuma is expected to walk before he enters the National Assembly and the president will be escorted through the streets of Cape Town by the military and mounted police. And while Capetonians moan about the road closures, the roads in the Cape Town CBD will be lined with members of the SA National Defence Force.

A red carpet will be laid out along Parliament Street for the president and the minions who make up the other branches of state, welcoming the president into the National Assembly.

But first we haul out the big guns: Zuma will observe a 21-gun salute and a flyover by the SA Air Force.

And while the military has done its bit to prove that it is indeed subservient to civilian authority, the girth of MPs, their clutch bags and squeezes are the object of ill-concealed glee in us plebs - at least those of us who still care enough to watch.

Zuma will then read out a tightly controlled account of what government plans to do in his second term in office. But no matter what it is that Zuma says, the peanut gallery will express its disdain of his oratory skills, wonder aloud whether he's read the speech at all before delivering it, and then drown out the statistics, allegories, promises and acknowledgements with distrust.

The fact that the speech is so necessary to the political spectacle is testimony to the fact that politics has become a show of politicians saying things - and not necessarily doing anything. This is not unique to South Africa, but it is also not the only problem with the malarkey that is the Sona and its attendant pomp and ceremony.

The ceremony and ritual surrounding the speech hark back to colonial times. If it feels archaic it is because it is a ritual that was maintained from another era. And while Parliament did indeed go through its own process of internal reform to better suit a new South Africa, the ceremony marking the opening of a new session of Parliament is a relic of the past.

As one of the continuities of the old apartheid-era Parliament, the ceremony surrounding the state of the nation speech continues to alienate ordinary citizens. This despite the fervent attempts by government to reach more people.

It's time that government itself commits to a debate, involving the public, on how to make official occasions like marking a new session of Parliament more modern and open. The ritual and ceremony of Parliament are not merely ornamental. They are indicative of the institutional character of the South African legislature.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). Follow her on Twitter @khadijapatel