Sona protests a telling barometer of discontent

Police maintained order near Parliament as various groups took to the streets. (Ashraf Hendricks)

Police maintained order near Parliament as various groups took to the streets. (Ashraf Hendricks)


On Thursday the streets of Cape Town became a real-life illustration of the intractable political shambles into which President Jacob Zuma would later step: a furious, roiling mess of competing interests sometimes just barely under control – and sometimes not quite that.

Men preened and women posed on the red carpet, seemingly oblivious to the marches outside. As preliminary State of the Nation proceedings got under way inside the parliamentary precinct, clashes broke out between riot police and demonstrators.

The opposition-run City of Cape Town granted permission for three marches or gatherings on Thursday, variously supporting the Democratic Alliance, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement. A group demanding the speeding up of land restoration for former District Six residents also marched, and the Pan Africanist Congress, the #RhodesMustFall and #ZumaMustFall movements made showings too. The ANC’s presence was relatively modest in comparison.

Ses’khona’s tactics are a close cousin of those employed by the EFF in Parliament: the group gained notoriety in 2013 when members dumped human faeces on the steps of the Western Cape legislature.

To placate just the interest groups represented on the streets around the precinct and inside the ring of steel around it, Zuma would have to resign, pay the state tens of millions of rands, reverse recent pension fund reforms, expropriate property (preferably without compensation), deport some of his friends, dismantle black economic empowerment and make tertiary education free.

But for his most important State of the Nation address to date, Zuma’s two most important audiences were not on the streets of Cape Town at all. On the one hand, he again had to convince the members of the ruling alliance that he was more asset than liability going into local government elections. On the other, he had to convince investors and money managers around the world, and ratings analysts in particular, that South Africa will be on a sound fiscal footing in the immediate future.

At the fringes of those two groups were those with utterly irreconcilable expectations. The left of the alliance sought a commitment to even higher levels of social spending and wages for civil servants. The conservative end of the investor community wanted austerity and privatisation.

That they all looked to the same event for their incompatible answers is Zuma’s own doing. Until 2009 the State of the Nation address was aimed at Parliament rather than the nation. But in 2010 Zuma changed it from a work-hours affair to an evening address to the nation.

That he is perceived to be weaker than ever is also his own doing. With or without his concessions before the Constitutional Court this week, Zuma’s handling of the Nkandla affair has inflated the scandal around his home. His December decision to fire his finance minister for no obvious reason and so trigger a crisis of confidence was apparently his alone, unsupported and not canvassed even in his inner circle.

That the various crises and issues facing the country had been personalised around Zuma was only partially his own fault, though. Insiders say it is presumed that Zuma would not take kindly to being pushed into the background in favour of, say, Cyril Ramaphosa, to avoid having his vulnerabilities transferred to the party. But the matter has never overtly arisen in party structures.

At the same time, the EFF’s apparently savant-like genius for capturing the national mood and direct it has built on the DA’s years of vilifying Zuma.

Extraordinary security for a red-letter day

Security around Parliament was at the highest levels since 1994, with roads blocked off for anyone without accreditation to attend the State of the Nation address. Even members of Parliament had to get special accreditation for the day.

A staffer said earlier in the day he had spotted a team of about nine police divers scouring the drains beneath the parliamentary precinct. These had all been sealed with small black wax crosses.

He also said there were special forces members doing security checks ahead of the address.

An area around Parliament with a radius of more than a kilometre was secured with high palisades and barbed wire, as well as snipers on high buildings.

Even the Grand Parade, where exactly 16 years ago the crowds waited for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, was surrounded by razor wire.

Workers in and around Parliament have remarked at the high level of security this year. The whole block was cordoned off and even beleaguered administrative staff members were asked by the armies of police officials guarding the entrances to produce accreditation to get into their offices.

Cars accredited to park inside the parliamentary precinct were checked thoroughly at the accreditation centre a few blocks away, and then accompanied into Parliament by cars with blue lights and sirens. – Carien du Plessis

Business not quite as usual

Inside the parliamentary precinct, television crews jockeyed for position and security guards wandered about as dignitaries hoisted smartphones and tablets to capture the perfectly coiffed VIPs on show.

But as the time approached for President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation speech, more public order police were deployed to control the protesters.

Clashes erupted throughout the day as various movements took to the streets. Ses’khona People’s  Rights Movement supporters wore T-shirts with slogans such as “DA has hatred against black people”; a DA T-shirt was burned as well. Riot police blocked Ses’khona’s path, leading to a three-hour stand-off.

The #ZumaMustFall campaign was the one that got closest to Parliament. Organisers shook hands with police, promising to abide by the law. As they marched closer to Ses’khona, the group was directed away by police, who feared clashes would erupt between the two opposing movements.

#FeesMustFall activists collided with the march, leading to fistfights and stones being hurled. Eventually calm prevailed.

Ses’khona supporters ardently defended Zuma, hoisting a banner that declared: “President Zuma, the people’s choice”, which opposed #FeesMustFall’s objective of “No education, no vote”. Some Ses’khona protesters, seeing a gap in the police blockade, managed to speed through and dance in the streets leading to Parliament. – Pontsho Pilane & Ra’eesa Pather

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165
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