Despite last month’s fire at parliament, officials ‘confident’ about incident-free Sona at new venue

Authorities say they are not anticipating disruptions on Thursday at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s  State of the Nation address (Sona), which has been moved to the Cape Town City Hall from its usual venue in Parliament after a devastating fire in an alleged arson attack last month.

“We are not really anticipating any disruptions … or any form of negative trouble,”   chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Amos Masondo told a news  conference on Tuesday.

The 2 January fire damaged the national assembly and parts of the old assembly.

Soon after the incident, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) arrested Zandile Christmas Mafe, 49, at the parliamentary precinct. He faces six charges, including one added later of terrorism under the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act.

The parliament fire fuelled concerns that the country’s democracy could be under attack, coming as it did after rioting and vandalism rocked KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July last year

In his first weekly newsletter for 2022, Ramaphosa wrote that attempts to undermine the democratic order must be countered.

“We must safeguard against any and all efforts to diminish our hard-won democracy — whether these efforts take the form of corruption in state-owned enterprises, the subversion of our law-enforcement agencies, the sabotage of our economic infrastructure, or attacks on the independence and integrity of our judiciary,” the president said.

On Tuesday, Masondo assured that everything had been done “to really ensure all goes well” during Ramaphosa’s address.

The parliament fire might cause the budget for the event to expand beyond what had been initially anticipated, says the acting secretary to parliament, Baby Tyawa. 

“We have put aside R4-million and that includes the debates up till the response from the president. On the day itself, we [are] anticipating an average of about R1.9-million,” Tyawa said, adding that these were only estimates. 

The amount is significantly higher than the R208 000 spent on the 2021 Sona, including just over R160 000 on the day of the address itself. Tyawa attributed this to the relocation of the venue and the replacement of branding burnt in last month’s fire.

But the 2021 Sona was a hybrid affair, with some people at the parliament building and others attending online as a result of Covid-19 regulations. 

The budget for Sona 2020 was estimated at R2.1-million but Tyawa said at the time she expected the cost would be less. In 2019, the budget was estimated at R2.5-million but the cost was lower at R1.6-million.

Speaker of the national assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was upbeat about Sona, telling journalists: “We are ready to host this auspicious event. With crises come opportunities, and we hope that this event will go down history as another proud moment for our nation — notwithstanding the circumstances under which it is being held.”

A total of 364 people will be allowed inside the Cape Town City Hall, including members of parliament, representatives of various arms of State, spheres of government, dignitaries and the media. 

Mapisa-Nqakula said guests who had confirmed their attendance included former president Thabo Mbeki, former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former speaker Baleka Mbete.

The Cape Town City Hall was declared a precinct of parliament from 31 January until 16 February. During this period it will host Thursday’s Sona, debate on Ramaphosa’s speech on 14 and 15 February and the president’s reply to the debate on 16 February.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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