Sona debate: No laughing matter this time around

President Jacob Zuma during the 2016 State of the Nation address debate. (David Harrison, M&G)

President Jacob Zuma during the 2016 State of the Nation address debate. (David Harrison, M&G)

This Thursday, unlike the previous one, there were no overt threats of violence and no planned marches as President Jacob Zuma addressed the joint-sitting of Parliament.

Barbed wire was erected in some areas, but security forces probably wanted to be safe rather than sorry. The marching masses of last week never pitched and the barbed wire was removed the moment Zuma finished speaking.

After all the drama of last week, it felt almost like a non-event.

Nkandla was the elephant in the room, but this time around Zuma didn’t have to say anything about it. It was all dealt with in the Constitutional Court the week before, when his lawyers admitted that public protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations meant that Zuma had to pay back some money for the security upgrades to his home in KwaZulu-Natal.

Functional debate
This left room for actual debate, although opposition parties still exploited the Nkandla matter and Zuma’s improperly close relationship with the business-minded Gupta family.

Zuma’s defenders on the back benches also remained seated. In fact, none of the members of Parliament who served on the ad hoc committee that dealt with the Nkandla report had a turn on the podium. Many of them reportedly feel that Zuma had thrown them under the bus by his admission in the Constitutional Court last week that he should pay back some money after all. This, after they risked their reputations defending him.

Instead, when ANC MPs spoke, it was to ridicule the opposition, notably EFF leader Julius Malema, and to defend government programmes that were questioned by the opposition.

Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, for instance, outlined government’s plans for economic recovery and development, while Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson spoke about renewable energy programmes and the need for nuclear.

Even some opposition MPs took to defending Zuma, like one of Agang’s two representatives, Andries Tlouamma, who said when Zuma is criticised, it should be “with love”. His praise was such that he created the impression that he mistakenly believed floor-crossing still exists.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane themed his attack on Zuma by insinuating the president was so out of touch with reality for the upgrades to his home and for his apparent paranoia about the EFF, that he lived on “Planet Zuma”. Unlike the EFF’s war cry of “Zupta must go”, this metaphor didn’t trend.

Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota hit a nerve when he spoke about “factions” in Parliament and was ruled out of order by the presiding officer, Raseriti Tau. A tussle ensued between DA chief whip John Steenhuisen and Tau after Steenhuisen accused Tau of “talking rubbish”.

Lekota argued that one faction in Parliament was made up of “two or three parties with the presiding officers” while the other was a smaller faction “trying to keep the executive accountable”. He said the legislature was held to ransom by the presiding officers who believed their function was to shield the executive.

In this way, he subtly exploited the reported unhappiness of some ANC MPs over Zuma’s U-turn on Nkandla.

Zuma responds
By the time Zuma delivered his reply, the EFF was no longer in the chamber – Malema and his caucus left because they said they didn’t want to take part in an “illegitimate” debate.

Some diplomats, attending the debate for the first time, even remarked that Zuma sounded “statesman-like” in his reply. Perhaps it was just because he was given time to speak and he wasn’t humiliated, like during his Sona the week before, by cries of “Zupta must fall”.

As in most other years, Zuma’s reply sounded more confident than his actual Sona, and he made all the right noises. He sympathised with the pain of the families of the trapped miners in Baberton. He explained the economic crisis – in Zulu – in a way that signalled that, this time, he actually gets it and he gave reassurances that his government would do all it could to avoid a ratings downgrade which would make economic growth difficult. He commended Maimane for the way he drew the attention away from the EFF during the Sona and onto the 8.3-million jobless in the country – a rare mention by the president to an opposition leader.

He gave assurances that the National Development Plan would be implemented, something that would boost business confidence.

Heckling was kept to a minimum, except for some murmurs when Zuma said governance at state-owned enterprises would be improved and the right people with proper qualifications would be appointed. MPs are well aware of reports of Zuma’s personal closeness to controversial South African Airways chairperson Dudu Myeni.

Zuma set the tone for a government that was serious about getting the economy right. Whether there is any substance to his promises will become apparent next Wednesday, when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan shows us the money.

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