/ 13 February 2015

An eyewitness account of Sona 2015

Elect a man whose core profession is intelligence operative and what do you get? Answer: a government run by the intelligence and security services.
Elect a man whose core profession is intelligence operative and what do you get? Answer: a government run by the intelligence and security services.

As a lawyer, you always advise your clients to “take a contemporaneous note of what you saw and heard and felt” as such a note will carry greater evidential and probative weight in court than one made days or even hours later. This is my “contemporaneous” note of last night’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), recorded just over two hours after President Jacob Zuma’s speech finally ended.

It was one of those occasions when you can say afterwards “I was there”. I took up my usual seat at the front row of the press gallery, high up above the speaker’s podium. As usual, I chose to sit on the left hand side of the box because I prefer to look across at the ANC benches to be able to better gauge the governing party and its ministers.

But for one occasion, I have been there for each of the last twenty years of Sonas. Some of the Nelson Mandela ones in the 1990s had a sense of occasion and a sense of history, as did one or two of Thabo Mbeki’s. Last night’s was a history-making occasion all right, but for all the wrong reasons.

I arrived unusually early at around 4pm, for an interview on the irrepressibly excellent Xolani Gwala’s 702 drive time show. Wandering around afterwards, the mood seemed decidedly different from normal. Usually, the atmosphere is light and celebratory. Habitual enmities are suspended for a day. Yesterday, the current animosities seemed to have been animated by the occasion. Word was spreading amongst the media that not only had the Economic Freedom Fighters turned violently against one of their own at a downtown hotel, but that police had arrested three Democratic Alliance “protestors” in St Georges’ Mall. Soon photos of the latter incident began to do the rounds: the police had disproportionately deployed water cannons against the mighty three.

Snipers deployed on rooftops
Security generally was far tighter than usual and the security officials far more brusque and tense. Snipers were deployed on rooftops and state security had run the accreditation process, not Parliament itself. It was clear that the intelligence services were all over Sona 2015, like a rash. Parliament had been forced to cede a lot of authority – if true, then a pertinent fact in the light of the events that were to unfold.

Chatting on air later with astute Kaya FM broadcaster John Perlman, I discovered that he too had succumbed to a sense of unease. I have never known a Sona with anything other than bright sun and blue skies. Yesterday, as 7pm approached, the skies filled with clouds and a rare humidity pressed. The ensuing closeness in the air merely served to add to one’s growing apprehension.

Another rumour was spreading fast. The cellphone signal had been blocked or scrambled. Text messages to Mondli Makhanya and Ranjeni Munusamy, who I knew were already installed inside in the press box, went unanswered. And so by the time Zuma approached the podium, the first chapter of the drama was set to unfold. The Freedom Front’s Corné Mulder was on his feet first, eloquently defending the right of the press, and everyone else, to receive and disseminate information, and demanding that the problem be addressed before the president begin his address.

For the first, but not the last time, Zuma resumed his seat. With further encouragement from other opposition MPs’ points of order, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete was persuaded to leave the chamber to confer with the secretary of Parliament to find out the cause of such a serious – and paranoid – transgression of the Constitution. Instinctively, I lent forwards to get a better view of the ANC front bench and noticed Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa urgently scribbling a note, which was then taken by one of the parliamentary ushers back and along to Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo. My interest was further piqued when instead of opening it immediately, Mahlobo rather disdainfully placed a large paw upon it and looked ahead rather than down. I kept watching him, and a few minutes later Mahlobo deigned to open the note and then shortly afterwards left the chamber. Soon after that, the signal was reinstated.

Later, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe told a press conference that Parliament was responsible for any decision to scramble the airwaves. Perhaps that is so. But it stretches credulity to think that Parliament, entirely off its own back, would arrange such a clumsy transgression of the Constitution. Either way, the person who issued the original order must be urgently identified. If it was Parliament, then it must be a case of “Gupta-itis”: i.e. doing what you think the Big Man wants. If it was state intelligence, or any other part of the executive, then the responsible minister should resign.

EFF presses on remorselessly
Zuma then returned to the podium only to discover that the microphone was not working. A collective cringe, and nervous giggle – a metaphor for the State of the Nation. Mbete tried lamely to blame it on the striking union, Nehawu. As Zuma then got going, the main act began.

Others will provide the details, but the short point is this: the EFF launched its carefully pre-arranged strategy: each and every one of its 24 MPs were to raise the same point of order or privilege. Three times different individual EFF MPs tried. Three times Mbete patiently ruled them out of order. With a blatant and vexatious disregard for both correct parliamentary procedure and convention, they tried a fourth time, whilst also beginning to open up a new front – that Mbete was wrong in her rulings and, moreover, was required to rule for each and every individual MP.

Across the aisle, the ANC benches were surprisingly and eerily quiet. They looked shocked. In my notebook I wrote “ANC – still; outflanked, again, and demoralised”. Malema, it seemed, was pushing them into a tricky corner. In fact, I realised soon after, Malema was pushing the presiding officers and, thereby, himself into a tricky corner. With wishful thinking, I had hoped – presumed, even – that Malema would make his point and then upon the speaker’s ruling, abandon it and sit down quietly, content in the knowledge that he had dominated all of the press coverage in the run-up to Sona.

But he and his fellow fighters pressed remorselessly on. “Allow me to speak,” Malema cried. “Julius,” Mbete replied, like the mother of an errant schoolboy, quickly correcting herself: “The Honorable Malema must leave the chamber!”

Two seats away, I heard – or felt – the sharp intake of breath from the experienced political journalist to my left. This was it. Game on. It really was going to happen.

Mbete: “The Honorable Malema must be assisted to leave the chamber.” Such a quaint way of putting it, I remember thinking. The sergeant at arms and “Black Rod” appeared. Theirs was to be a brief, cameo performance – more for form than anything. Clearly, they were in no position to “assist” Malema and his crew to leave. I did not catch Mbete’s actual words, but suddenly there were tens of white-shirted men and women on the scene. They approached their task with gusto and the words of a senior ANC minister just 24 hours before, whispered in my ear, rushed to my mind: “If he goes too far this time, we will be ready and he will be dealt with.”

They were ready; and he was dealt with, though precisely what happened next – and by whom to whom – will be the subject of considerable scrutiny, very probably by the courts. It was, as they say in South London, a “right old schmozzle”.

Actually, it was sickening.

A friend texted simply: Cry the beloved country.

The ANC benches remained still. They were, I surmise, as shocked as anyone, perhaps more so. How did it come to this? After all, he – Malema – is one of our own, gone rogue.

‘We should not be selective about the Constitution’
With the Red Brigade gone, part three of this three act drama commenced, with DA parliamentary leader Musi Maimane and a colleague or two, pursuing a pre-planned line of questioning that was as simple as it is constitutionally critical: who were the men and women in white shirts (some of them with firearms)? If they were police, then we need to know, Maimane argued.

Mbete could not say. She looked lost, as she realised that once again she had lost control of the House and may have been culpable of a serious misjudgment. Even if the EFF’s disruptive intentions were clear, did she have authority to order the whole of the EFF contingent from the chamber, when only four or five of them had attempted to raise points of order or privilege?

So her fellow presiding officer, Thandi Modise, the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, took over. Modise is a much more sage and authoritative figure. She was composed and calm, though in the end she was compelled to admit something that she may come to regret, namely, that the “security forces were working with parliamentary security services” and “I cannot tell you which were police”.

It was clear that the DA caucus was poised to walk out on this point of principle. But who would make the decision – Helen Zille, at the very front of the NCOP benches erected for the purpose of the Sona joint sitting of the two houses in the middle of the chamber, and just a couple of metres from Maimane’s spot on the front bench of the DA. Zille looked like she was ready to move, but somewhat hesitant. She looked towards Maimane, but it was he that got up and turned, without looking at his party leader.

Amidst the exchanges that preceded Maimane’s decision to lead the DA from the chamber, ANC veteran Naledi Pandor had made a vital point: that the joint sitting had been invited by the President, so he could present his State of the Nation Address in service on his constitutional duty, and that the EFF’s conduct was a violation of the Constitution by seeking to deny the President and the House the opportunity.

“We should not be selective about the Constitution,” Pandor argued. Indeed so. However inappropriate and unconstitutional the violence perpetrated by the state on the EFF members was, the EFF had crossed a line. Their attempt to disrupt Sona was an appalling and unacceptable abuse of parliamentary process.

A government run by intelligence services
In turn, of course, everyone is bound to wonder whether any of this could conceivably have happened had Zuma not been president. The actual speech, when it finally started an hour late, with presumably much of the hoped-for audience lost, was even more pedestrian than usual. It lacked any sort of narrative thread or arc, and very little sense of focus or necessary urgency. And it failed to show any real empathy of the plight of so many of his citizens.

Zuma is an artful as well as ruthless politician when it comes to protecting his own interests. Yet, he is also an incredibly limited politician when it comes to thinking on his feet or responding to the demands of a particular moment. Remember his lamentably bland words on the night of the Marikana massacre? So, too, last night, he failed to react to the ferocious drama that had just unfolded in front of his and the nation’s eyes. With many still watching, he could have seized the moment, to condemn the EFF and to reiterate his own and his party’s commitment to the Constitution and to democratic order. Instead, he feebly resumed his text, with a nervous, inappropriate chuckle.

Many on his side must have been asking, as they have been for over seven years: how on Earth did we end up with this guy at the helm? Well, you reap what you sow. Elect a man whose core profession is intelligence operative and what do you get? Answer: a government run by the intelligence and security services.

Malema may well have overplayed his hand last night. It may have been too much for “middle” South Africa. The moment before the shenanigans began may prove to have been the EFF’s high water mark. The divisions in the EFF are now apparent, and they may well now begin a slow descent towards disintegration. But while Zuma remains in power, the EFF will always have something to bind it.

And yet, when Sona was finally over at 9.20pm, the ANC MPs emerged into air that had been cleansed by a rare February evening shower and stayed singing and dancing on the steps of the National Assembly for far, far longer than I can ever remember in the past decade or more – I sensed that they did so as much out of relief that it was all over rather than any substantial newfound unity and common purpose.

Now based at the University of Cape Town, former Idasa parliamentary information and monitoring programme manager Richard Calland is a constitutional lawyer and political analyst who has attended 19 of the last 20 State of the Nation Addresses.