OPINION: Sona 2015: Carpe Diem, Zuma style
And on the eighth day, we got our happy ending. Well, not really. What we got was a commotion-less sitting of Parliament and a president who extended a much-needed olive branch across the House. We also got a speech that had a little more in the way of detail about the state of the nation and government plans to tackle problem areas. Yes, our bar for leadership and good performance is not set very high, but after a tumultuous week in South African politics, it was enough to calm the waters, if only for now.
It could not have been easy for President Jacob Zuma to commend the person who has made it his life's work to torment him and seek to defeat his presidency. Let's not forget that the hostility between Julius Malema and Zuma has been simmering long before the Nkandla matter exploded. The tensions were evident from 2010 with a proxy battle in the African National Congress (ANC) over nationalisation, which escalated and eventually led to Malema's expulsion.
In June 2012, Malema called Zuma a "tribalist, dictator and an angry man" who wanted to fight anyone who challenged him. The launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) saw the attacks on Zuma mount, particularly during the 2014 election trail.
Then came Nkandla and "pay back the money".
Zuma has faced many opponents in his lifetime, many of whom were also enemies of the ANC during the liberation struggle and from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) during the war in KwaZulu-Natal. Zuma played a significant role in negotiations with both the National Party and the IFP to defuse those conflicts.
Then there was Thabo Mbeki, a battle that ended with the most powerful man on the continent losing his presidency and Zuma rising to both the leadership of the ANC and the country.
Zuma knows how to manoeuvre.
But now there's Malema. In the battle with Mbeki, there was never open hostility between the two and they were always civil to one another, even after Mbeki fired Zuma as his deputy.
With Malema, the attacks have been deep and personal. The EFF's protest in Parliament in August during the president's question session must have been extremely humiliating for Zuma. The threat of a repeat performance during the 2015 State of the Nation Address (Sona) caused all manner of panic in the ANC and government, leading to extraordinary measures, including the scrambling of the cellular network.
So when Zuma stood at the podium in Parliament on Thursday to respond to the Sona debate, it could not have been easy to look across at Malema and commend him for the way he participated in the debate. Malema's speech on Tuesday was heavily critical of Zuma's leadership and the government; it was by no means tame, but it was minus the insults and Nkandla taunting. Although the EFF had been violently ejected from the chamber before Zuma delivered the Sona, Malema did not dwell on the incident; instead he spoke to issues affecting his constituency. It took many people by surprise, apparently even Zuma.
Zuma responded to a concern raised by Malema about temporary workers and labour brokers. He said due to amendments in legislation, the issues raised by Malema had been resolved. Then, in one of the most poignant moments in South African politics, Zuma looked across at Malema and commended him for really dealing with the issues in the Sona. He said that was what was needed.
Malema did not make eye contact with Zuma and his gaze was fixed on a spot across the chamber. Other EFF MPs around Malema looked unsure as to how to respond, with even the usually brash Shivambu staring down at his lap.
Malema was not the only one Zuma broke away from his speech to acknowledge. He also praised IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi for raising issues with "dignity and respect". "At times you do resemble a father figure," Zuma told Buthelezi, a line destined to be oft repeated in future speeches by the IFP leader.
When Zuma walked into the House amid the Sona fanfare last Thursday, the EFF contingent remained sitting. Buthelezi leaned over to Malema and tried to coax him into standing up. Malema ignored him. During the heated Sona debate this week, Buthelezi on occasion tried to calm the tempers. It is probably why Zuma said it was "good to have senior citizens around".
Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota was also commended for raising issues without being "angry and noisy". Zuma said he normally struggled to hear Lekota's shouts at the podium but said he appreciated his constructive criticism.
In previous Sona replies, even during Mbeki's time as president, the convention has been that the president picks a few opposition concerns to respond to and highlights strong points raised by ANC speakers during the debate. They tend to steer clear of controversial issues.
It was therefore surprising that Zuma tackled some very contentious issues raised by opposition MPs and even responded to concerns from members of the public.
Zuma had not addressed the instability and leaderless state in many of the anti-corruption and crime-busting state institutions during the Sona, but he responded to United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa's concerns about this.
"Honourable Holomisa, I assure you that what you called instability at the top echelons of the crime-busting institutions is being attended to. This matter is of great concern to us. There is no government that would not be worried even if it was only two or three institutions that are affected," Zuma said. He did not, however, give any details or timelines.
He acknowledged points raised by Democratic Alliance (DA) MPs on the electricity crisis, saying load shedding was a serious challenge and impediment to economic growth. He also gave a detailed response to the DA's trade and industry spokesman Geordin Hill-Lewis's criticism that South Africa's GDP growth rate was lower than other SADC countries, arguing that less developed countries tend to grow faster than more developed ones.
But the most biting speech from the official opposition, courtesy of the DA'a parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, did not receive any response. Maimane's speech, in which he condemned Zuma as a "broken man, presiding over a broken society", would have required Zuma to go on the defensive. Instead, he made general comments such as: "We don't worry when you call us names because we know where we came from."
Zuma went on to say: "Even when we differ, we must not get angry. Why do we get angry? This is not a war we are fighting. Democracy says we must share our views even if we differ. When you are angry you can say things you don't mean… If someone calls me a dog there is something wrong with them, not me. I know I am not a dog, I am Gedleyihlekisa. Let us keep our cool. Soccer players say play the ball and not the man."
Zuma's most impassioned response was to the Freedom Front Plus's Pieter Mulder, who had claimed the president was using white people as scapegoats for the country's problems. Zuma presented Mulder with an extended history lesson to reassure him of his and the ANC's commitment to non-racialism. He said nobody was chasing Afrikaners away from South Africa, but said he would not stop talking about the country's history.
Zuma provided much-needed clarity on the issue of foreign land ownership, responding to messages he received from members of the public. He said the Land Holdings Bill applied to agricultural land and would not affect foreign nationals wanting to buy houses in South Africa. It would also not affect business properties and Zuma said multinationals would be affected only if their future property purchases consisted of agricultural land.
With the Department of State Security and the security cluster ministers going to great lengths to quell the controversy over the cellular network jamming in Parliament during the Sona, it was not expected that Zuma would delve into it. It was a welcome surprise that he did.
Zuma had come under heavy criticism for laughing and powering on with his speech after the EFF was forcibly removed from the chamber by a large contingent of unidentified security officers.
Although he did not mention the EFF ejection specifically, he said after the "unfortunate incidents of last Thursday", all parties had a responsibility to make Parliament work.
"Whatever our views are about one another or political parties that we represent, we need to preserve the dignity of Parliament. We must ensure that our people do not lose confidence in Parliament's ability to discharge its important constitutional responsibility to produce legislation aimed at improving the quality of their lives."
Zuma said they also had the responsibility to promote the Constitution "which is the blood and soul of our democracy". He reaffirmed government's commitment to Clause 16 of the Constitution that protects freedoms of association, expression and the media, saying the signal jamming was "unfortunate" and "should never happen again".
This was not a speech for major announcements or one that could make South Africa turn the corner from its various crises. It was to close a divisive debate after a conflict-ridden week, and put Sona 2015 to bed. Perhaps it was the positive effect of Speaker Baleka Mbete's apology to Malema, for calling him a cockroach and Malema's subsequent apology to DA leader Helen Zille for calling her the same thing some time ago that set the tone for a general ceasefire.
Perhaps everyone was exhausted from a week of carping and fractious exchanges. Perhaps Zuma dug deep to find his expertise at peace-making and decided to put it to use again. Maybe he decided to be the leader he could be, even for just one afternoon.
Or perhaps the words of former ANC president Oliver Tambo that he quoted hit home:
"We did not tear ourselves apart because of lack of progress at times. We were always ready to accept our mistakes and to correct them… Even in bleak moments, we were never in doubt regarding the winning of freedom. We have never been in doubt that the people's cause shall triumph".
Whatever the reasons, the proceedings in Parliament on Thursday went without disturbance, MPs listened attentively to the president throughout, and Zuma stepped up and reached out to the opposition to subdue hostilities.
This is by no means the end of the enmity. Zuma promised he would have more to say when he returns to the podium on 11 March to answer questions. And Malema has already indicated that the EFF was waiting for the opportunity to tackle the president again on Nkandla. But the ceasefire means that Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene can present the all-important National Budget next week without the House coming down.
It also means that South Africa can exhale after the turbulence of eight days in February we will not easily forget.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.