Editorial: SONA has become a battleground

President Zuma during the State of the Nation Address 2016. (Paul Botes)

President Zuma during the State of the Nation Address 2016. (Paul Botes)

The State of the Nation address is no longer what it used to be. This big speech, when the head of state addresses the people who (largely) elected him with office and therewith kicks off the parliamentary season, is now the absent centre at the heart of a great whirlwind of contestation and turbulence. What President Jacob Zuma actually had to say in Parliament on this occasion felt insignificant compared to the several protests and counter-protests noisily gathered outside it, the threat of disruption of the address by opposition groups within Parliament, and the fact that the president had earlier in the week made a humiliating climbdown on the issue that made his last State of the Nation Address such a debacle.

Moreover, since the bigger debacle of his finance minister roundabout in December, and his climbdown there too, the president has almost no credibility left. He is no longer able to pretend, even, that he is the wise, efficient, caring, honourable head of state that a modern democracy needs – let alone the head of a “developmental state”. Those who want some clue of where South Africa might actually go over the next year (that is, can it begin to claw its way out of economic ruin) haven’t been waiting with bated breath for the address – it’s seen only as a vague portent of what the budget may contain, and at this moment that is what’s truly important for South Africa’s future, both immediate and longer term. Given that now Zuma looks like a less powerful or competent figure than the finance minister he hastily put in place to fix matters, the shift of gravity to the budget is quite natural.

At last year’s State of the Nation address, Zuma had to have the chanting opposition thrown out of Parliament so that he could deliver his speech; he and the ANC in Parliament had to employ heavies disguised as waiters to muscle the Economic Freedom Fighters out of the house. From then on, the address itself would be a battleground.

  Ejecting the EFF was also a humiliation, in many ways, for the president and for the ANC nabobs in the House, even if they tried to play it as a victory over a bunch of traitors. Actually, all they did was to show that the singing-and-dancing president could be upstaged, and to display the ANC’s repressive side – thereby contributing significantly to the piece of political theatre ignited by the EFF when they called on Zuma, in Parliament, to #PayBackTheMoney.

This year, there were more questions about what the EFF might do during Zuma’s speech than there was interest in what the president might actually say. And, as though they had taken a leaf from the EFF’s permanent-protest book, various organisations and interest groups decided the address was the perfect occasion to vent their spleen about the state of things in South Africa. The occasion of this solemn address is now a site of protest.

The ANC elected Zuma to lead it and made him the face of its 2009 election campaign, even though he had wiggled out of nearly 800 charges of fraud, corruption and money-laundering at the 11th hour. The ANC leadership, once taken by the Zuma faction, would not tolerate any mention of possible corruption on the president’s part.

Instead, every device was deployed to defend him on issue after issue, but most vociferously on the matter of the R247-million spent on his private home by the state, and how much of that was legitimate. Nkandla has become the Achilles heel of Zuma’s presidency, and his party’s and government leaders’ attempts to exonerate him have made them look absurd.

As we report in this week’s edition, there are surely many of those ardent Zuma supporters in government and the party who will find themselves in danger of losing their positions, once this political drama plays out. They will lose out precisely because they tied their fortunes to Zuma, who has conducted his presidency by means of patronage, and when that patron stumbles they will be pulled down.

Zuma himself will care little about that, or as little as he cared when key supporters who helped him depose Mbeki were stabbed in the back – Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi come to mind. More and more people will see that such rule through personal loyalty and blind submission to the will of Number One is not good governance.

  They also see that he is vulnerable. The Constitutional Court challenge faced by Zuma on the Nkandla matter this past week, as we report, is likely to strike an arrow right into that Achilles heel. He tried to avoid a disruptive State of the Nation address by admitting defeat (and, in essence, that he had been wrong all along) in the court, but that has not soothed the anger of all those who are gatvol of not only his personal sins but the way he and his ANC leadership have failed South Africa as a nation, and especially the large bulk of the population still mired in poverty.

All this contributes to the Zuma presidency’s haemorrhage of credibility and trust, and that loss shows in the protests that jostled around Parliament on Thursday. Ironically, it was Zuma who tried to polish up the prestige of his annual address by turning it into more of an event: it would start later in the evening than hitherto, and it would be a glittering red-carpet event. MPs and other dignitaries still swanned down the red carpet in their finery, but most of the citizenry gathered this year outside Parliament weren’t there to cheer them, or even to gawp at what Lindiwe Sisulu and Malusi Gigaba were wearing. Rather, they were there this year to shout that something is wrong in the state of the nation, and that their voices have not been heard. That should give the ruling party’s MPs some pause for thought.

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