It started with a warm smile but ended with an absence.
President Jacob Zuma took his place behind the podium at the focus of the big chamber of Parliament on Thursday afternoon, apparently unworried, despite knowing he was due to face tough questions about his Nkandla homestead again.
And, for the first 23 minutes of his stint answering questions, the atmosphere was light, with jokes punctuating Zuma’s usual hesitant reading of answers to old issues.
Within an hour, however, the official and only allowed video feed from Parliament had been cut amid attempts to remove journalists from the gallery – and security officials were getting physical with the Economic Freedom Fighters, who were still occasionally bursting into the chant they had finally settled on: “Pay back the money! Pay back the money!”
Zuma was long gone by then, having vacated the chamber even before other MPs filed out. His final smile was decidedly forced.
On the spot
The Democratic Alliance first put Zuma on the spot, with a “you know, we know, and you know that we know” question: There really isn’t agreement within the ruling alliance that the National Development Plan is the one, single plan for economic growth and job creation, is there?
Zuma batted it aside.
“I’m sure a politician who thinks the opposition would agree with anything would be a funny politician,” he joked calmly.
And when DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane pressed Zuma on whether his ever-looming corruption charges created a conflict of interest in his appointing the National Prosecuting Authority boss, he was still in control.
“Your question really is not a question, a serious question,” he ribbed Maimane, amid giggles, after explaining that, as far as he was concerned, “I have no charges against me so the issue of conflict of interest does not arise.”
But as the speaker, Baleka Mbete, tried to move on to the next scheduled question, from EFF leader Julius Malema, the revolt was brewing. They had not been allowed to ask a follow-up question to Maimane’s exchange with Zuma, Malema’s right-hand man, Floyd Shivambu, and then Malema himself complained loudly and angrily.
They were rebuffed and Mbete allowed Zuma to proceed.
He said he had responded to the public protector’s report on Nkandla “in August 1994” – Zuma’s laugh was a tad too long and loud – correcting himself he added: “2014”.
It was then, at 2.47pm on the windy but otherwise pleasant Cape Town afternoon, that Malema got to address Zuma directly for the first time. He started calmly, even respectfully. “Mister president, we are asking this question precisely because you have not provided the answer,” he said.
But by the end of his question, he was issuing an ultimatum: “… and we are not going to leave here before we answer the question.”
Zuma was placatory but firm. “I have responded to all the reports as I am supposed to,” he told Malema. “And I hope we are not going to make a debate on this issue because I have responded appropriately.”
It was a hope fulfilled, though arguably not as Zuma had hoped. In fact, he didn’t quite get to finish his thoughts before anarchy set in.
MPs interrupted, shouting out, demanding to be heard on points of order. Mbete was threatening Shivambu that he would be thrown out of the chamber, and the chant started, first as a statement: “We want our money.”
Then, as a shout: “Pay back our money!” Then, as a roar, with EFF MPs beating their hands rhythmically on the benches and waving hard hats in the air: “We want the money! We want the money!”
“We are not going anywhere!” declared Shivambu, on a microphone momentarily live. “We don’t want police, we want the money …” reiterated Malema, before the feed from another microphone was cut.
Zuma sat back and watched, his jaw flexing irritably, sucking on his lips. And then suddenly he wasn’t there … and the EFF had the chamber to themselves as other parties obeyed Mbete’s call to clear the room and clear the corridors of Parliament – in anticipation of riot police using tear gas.
In the end it did not come to that, despite reports that some ANC MPs were eager to join in the physical removal of the EFF members, while the EFF jauntily sang “Dubula Zuma [shoot Zuma]”, an adapted version of the Dubula iBunu (Shoot the boer) song that had seen Malema in trouble while he still headed the ANC Youth League.
By the time Mbete formally ended the session – with the agreement of opposition parties, she said – Zuma was still absent. He would continue answering questions at some unspecified later date, she said.
At the time the Mail & Guardian was going to print, EFF and ANC MPs were being kept apart by police – and comments that Zuma had “run away” in the face of the EFF’s persistent questions had started on social media.
For the latest on the parliamentary confrontation, go to mg.co.za.