IT has been many years since I last attended the State of the Nation address at Parliament. It was my first 7 pm session, and on this sultry February afternoon as I arrived for media accreditation, the usual blustery Cape Doctor had backed off from blowing everything away.
As the sun dimmed on a striking Cape Town summer evening, ostrich feathers, hats and hairstyles remained in place. And whilst some of the expensive outfits I saw could have paid for a RDP house, I was told it was a subdued fashion year.
Of course, the State of the Nation has always been about pomp and pageant – a ceremonial first day for our parliamentarians. It is a curious tableau of the colonial and the indigenous.
Stiff soldiers and Scottish bagpipes are followed by a loose-limbed, ululating Xhosa praise singer. Four air-force jets fly in formation overhead as a 21-gun salute booms. Pigeons scatter overhead as the President, escorted by the Speaker, enters the House.
I am told this whole ceremony has cost Parliament R6 million. It sounds like a lot of money, and I ask myself: is this razzmatazz worth it?
Zuma takes the podium and begins his address. Without being too specific, he concentrates on jobs and the economy. Delivery is the big “if”, but he is focusing on our needs.
Yes, I think, after listening to him for a while – this parliamentary razzmatazz is worth it.
It is our parliament, and these are the people we voted into power. Things may be far from perfect, but in South Africa we do have the luxury of a functioning Constitution and an applicable Bill of Rights.
I can criticise the President, and he can’t send goons to arrest me. I can talk my own language; I can embrace my own culture. I have freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of worship.
I have the creative liberty to write this article – unburdened by a myriad of restrictive edicts – for a publication that doesn’t have to fear censorship, or state shutdowns.
As the Assembly spills on to the Stalplein after the State of the Nation address, our team chases down politicians and party officials for comment. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, Cabinet Ministers Tina Joemat-Peterson, Ntathi Mtweta and Ebrahim Patel have their say.
COPE’s Mosiua Lekota limps into picture; DA leader and Western Cape premier, Helen Zille, is ushered away for a radio interview. Patricia de Lille holds court before the cameras.
Chief Buthelezi, one of the last surviving apartheid relics in public life, shuffles into a television studio, his sunglasses masking the fact that he closes his eyes when he speaks.
Without getting too hackneyed, I realise that the State of the Nation address, and the opening of Parliament, are the unlocking of the nation’s Constitutional door. That’s something to celebrate.
As journalists we have been able to engage our leaders, and men in uniforms have not chased us away for trying to do so.
Whilst I’m monitoring all of this, Tahrir Square in Cairo is heading for its 17th night of protest. One of Africa’s most extraordinary revolutions is at a critical stage. The tweets are coming in fast that President Hosni Mubarak might step down.
Later that night, Mubarak appears on state television. I see a sneering, supercilious octogenarian with dyed hair. This is not the stiff-backed, iron-fisted Mubarak I know. He resorts to ingratiating arrogance, calling a people he’d ruthlessly bullied for 30 years his “children”.
When he says he won’t be dictated to on when he should go, the crowd roars with anger. I can’t help but be reminded of former President PW Botha.
Facing international opprobrium and a nationwide uprising, he took to the nation’s TV screens in August 1985. He pontificated, wagged his imperial finger, and refused to implement the meaningful reform everyone expected of him.
That particular performance (Botha never delivered speeches) became known as the “Rubicon Address”. Four years later he was forced out of office by his own party. Like Mubarak, his notions of importance had been highly over-rated.
But as I sat watching Al-Jazeera, I realised that while the Egyptian uprising had its own terms and merits, there were critical resonances with the South African experience.
This is because during apartheid, like in Mubarak’s Egypt, we did not have a free media. We did not have an independent judiciary. Our state organs were not up to scrutiny, and nor was Parliament accountable, or responsive, to the majority of the population.
And unlike today, to have an idea about the destiny of your country was against the law. To question existing values could mean detention without trial, house arrest, interrogation, torture and even extra-judicial death.
But the worst effects of apartheid, and Mubarak’s Egypt, was the stifling of the human spirit. The apartheid of the mind can be as devastating as a riot policeman’s nightstick crunching into your skull. When opportunity, ideas and creativity become restricted, a society starts to fester on its edges, and infect the centre.
In South Africa we resorted to crime and violence, and in Egypt it fostered Islamic extremism. These are debilitating social diseases that are difficult to cure unless their causes are rooted out.
For Egypt, a country of 80 million with one-quarter of its people living below the poverty line, the challenges are probably even more daunting than ours.
Then there is the fact that a military takeover, and rule by a Supreme Military Council, is not the same as democracy. The Generals will have to let go in six months.
As journalist and film-maker John Pilger writes, the Egyptian uprising represents the fruits of possibility. And that’s where the uncertainty lies; will democracy truly take root in North Africa?
But as a Middle East Report Online editorial says: “there are moments in world affairs that call for a suspension of disbelief. At these junctures, caution ought to be suppressed and cynicism forgotten to let joy and wonderment resound.
“Across the globe, everyone, at least everyone with a heart, knows that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is such a time”.