By Judith February
There are certain moments in South African political life which simply lodge in one’s memory.
The day 27 years ago when FW De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other political parties was one such day.
And then there was the day Nelson Mandela strode out of Victor Verster prison like the colossus he was, head held high.
We won’t forget that sombre day in 2005 when former President Thabo Mbeki told a joint sitting of the House that he was releasing Jacob Zuma from his position as deputy president. That, of course, all eventually led to the epic night in September 2008 when Mbeki himself would be recalled from office by his own party.
Yet through all this our democracy held firm, bruised and battered, but firm.
9 February 2017 will be remembered as the night our politics shifted in an even more dangerous direction than the night in 2015 when signals were jammed in Parliament and the EFF was evicted forcefully by the ‘white shirts’.
Zuma’s deployment of soldiers and the unprecedented security around Parliament this year set the tone for the State of the Nation Address (Sona); combative.
It sent a chilling message that those who dare oppose him will feel the weight of the state security apparatus. Much of the pre-Sona build up thus rightly focused on the excessive security measures in place and less on what Zuma would actually say.
The EFF clearly came ready to do battle. Their MPs started taking points of order repeatedly relating to Zuma’s breach of the Constitution in the Nkandla matter and then the alleged presence of SAPS in the National Assembly.
The EFF claimed that SAPS officers were ‘planted’ among the protection officers and equipped with whips and also ‘biological’ spray.
And so it went on and on until Cope’s rather hapless Willie Madisha was asked to leave for what seemed like a minor misdemeanour.
The DA at first requested that the business of the evening be concluded. But once things descended into chaos and DA leader Mmusi Maimane tried to intervene, several ANC MPs who thus far had remained virtually ‘silent-shouted’ him down.
In a base display, an ANC member was heard clearly using the ‘F-word’ at Maimane. Did Mbete not hear that, one wonders? Other inexplicable cries of ‘racist!’ were hurled at Maimane and the DA left.
What a disgrace the ANC has become; a shadow of its former self, trying to win arguments by dint of expletives and force and not by the weight of argument.
The EFF, of course, was spoiling for the fight and while it is so that Zuma has breached the Constitution and has not been properly held to account, their disruptive strategy has its limits.
Thus far there have been open calls for his resignation but it’s hardly a revolution.
The EFF too has to understand the boundaries of its own electoral mandate and work rather more assiduously to cultivate its support base. That fight one cannot help but think must be taken to the streets and worked for with a disciplined, longer-term strategy and tactics approach.
Yet, for whatever the faults of the EFF and its rambunctious opposition, the points made by both the EFF and the DA regarding riot police in the precinct and alleged SAPS infiltration in the House were perfectly valid and democratically important.
The Speaker, however, dismissed all the security-related questions with undue haste. Did she know something we did not? And yet, even as ‘white shirts’ forcefully dragged EFF members out (and they responded in kind by throwing their helmets at them), members of the ANC sat watching in silence or jeering and cheering.
Jacob Zuma, typically unfazed, simply rose to deliver his sonorous speech with his customary laugh.
By the time he started speaking most of the opposition had left and Zuma was right in his comfort zone, speaking to what was, in essence, a party gathering.
As usual, his stilted delivery left us grasping for the written text. Zuma showed himself entirely disconnected from the content of the speech and barely tried to hide it.
Apparently, we are entering a new phase of ‘radical economic transformation’ however.
Zuma asked, “What do we mean by radical socio-economic transformation? We mean fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female, as defined by the governing party which makes policy for the democratic government.’ That is all familiar territory for the ANC.
Much of what Zuma spoke of seems pretty much the same as what we have heard all along related to land redistribution, changing ownership patterns, real empowerment and the creation of a class of black industrialists.
Despite 2016 being dominated by the #feesmustfall protests, what was offered by way of ‘solutions’ was pedestrian, to say the least.
Zuma came before a country straining under the weight of inequality and seeking answers to issues of ‘state capture’ which will not go away, no matter how long he seeks to delay the commission of inquiry to look into these allegations.
Ultimately though what Zuma said was entirely overshadowed by chaotic scenes inside and outside of Parliament.
Here was a president prepared to use force to crack down on dissent in Parliament and on the streets outside. If he had to deploy soldiers he would do that. The violence we witnessed within the National Assembly has no place in a democracy built on deliberation, not force.
Zuma lies at the heart of this battle within all of our institutions. The damage he is causing and has caused our country is incalculable and yet, he remains protected by those around him whose economic futures are tied to his.
Sona 2017 was a night of deep shame and the man at the centre of it all remains unbowed.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: judith_february