Does the ANC have a good story to tell or not?
That seemed to be the main question at the second day of parliamentary debates, following the 2014 State Of The Nation speech.
President Jacob Zuma's speech on Thursday focused on the achievements of his administration after his first five years in office, as well as the ANC's achievements in the past 20 years of democracy.
The ANC's election phrase: "We have a good story to tell", was peppered throughout his speech, as it was in his manifesto speech in January this year in his capacity as ANC president.
He will give a second State Of The Nation speech after elections when Parliament is reconstituted, if the ANC win, outlining his plans for the next term in office.
But the history-heavy and backward-looking address on Thursday coalesced Wednesday's debate into a discussion around the phrase, which made an appearance in nearly every speaker's speech, albeit sarcastically when it was used by anyone in the opposition.
Democratic Alliance MP and party spokesperson for finance Tim Harris quipped at the end of his speech that the "voters have had enough of ANC's stories", while Independent Democrats' MP Lance Greyling outlined the energy problems facing the country, pointing out that this is "the real story South Africans should know". Cope's Willie Madisha said the "president's good story is 90% fiction". The DA's Wilmot James dwelled on the ANC's most damning mistakes in the area of HIV and Aids, saying Zuma, who "thought a shower could wash away the virus", was not responsible for the turn around. "This is a disgraceful story," he said.
Outgoing and respected DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard also got in on the action. "During this speech, 25 people will be raped in our country. Before the day is over, 45 South Africans will be murdered," she said, going on to describe the failures of the three pillars of the criminal justice system – policing, the National Prosecuting Authority and prisons. "South Africa has had enough, South Africa deserves a much better story," she said.
But ANC members at the mic, who got the majority of speaking time thanks to their majority in the House, fought back hard, listing story after story either painting the ANC government in a good light or the DA-led government in the Western Cape in a bad light.
Minister of Public Service and Administration Lindiwe Sisulu ran through a list of her take of the DA's failures in the Western Cape, and the ANC government's own successes. When heckled from the audience she twice snapped "shut up" mid-sentence, later withdrawing when reprimanded by the speaker Max Sisulu.
Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti meanwhile deviated from his prepared speech entirely, and instead treated the House to a rundown of why he believed Zuma had achieved much on his own, instead of riding on the coat tails of his predecessors or reversing their gains, as claimed by the opposition taking issue with the "good story" narrative.
"We're talking facts now, we're not shouting," said Nkwinti, who avoided mud-slinging with other parties in favour of relating story after story of government successes he had visited or heard of, including those built by the national government in the DA-run Western Cape.
"It's not them, it's your government, Mr President," he repeated earnestly looking directly at Zuma, who warmly shook his hand at the end of his 20-minute speech.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, along with Sisulu, meanwhile delivered the greatest tongue-lashing to opposition parties in general and the DA in particular.
"We never had to look at a leader from another party or organisation," said Motsoaledi, who was first on the list of speakers and got the debate off to a fiery start in his 21-minute speech.
He was referencing the DA's failed partnership with Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele. "You have a party who start their story with one Helen and end with another Helen … who is not sure if she can lead or not," said Motsoaledi, adding Zille went out to try "hire another leader".
Sisulu also referenced the embarrassing incident for the opposition in an even more fiery speech aimed at the opposition, calling the DA a one-person party under Zille, "hunting for any black face to bring you legitimacy".
Motsoaledi took aim at other parties too, which have been beset by leadership problems. "We never had to go to court" to choose a leader, he said.
Harris retaliated in his own speech that the ANC didn't have to go to court to choose a president, but they had a leader who avoided going to court in order to be a president.
Harris reiterated that his party did not disagree that the country was in a better place in 2014 than it was in 1994, but should have done more by now. "We can do better than benchmarking ourselves against a racist system," he said, responding to the ANC's comparison of the two eras in their "good story to tell" speeches.
DA MP Annelie Lotriet chose a classic story for her reference to Zuma's repeated slogan, quoting the opening lines of Charles Dickens' famous novel A tale Of Two Cities in her speech: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," she began.
"In his State Of The Nation address, the president only told the story of the best of times," she said, before outlining her version of the "worst of times".
But to remind the house that this really was an electioneering showcase for all the political parties, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder drew on an even older story to conclude his speech saying: "The Bible doesn't say when Jesus is returning," referencing Zuma's previous statements that the ANC will rule until Jesus returns. "It could be tomorrow, or May 7. Nobody knows."