Cell phone jamming, news blackouts, violence in parliament and water cannons and armed vehicles in the streets of Cape Town marked the beginning of the new parliamentary year in South Africa on Thursday.
The events unfolded around a planned interruption of the presidential State of the Nation speech by the opposition ‘Economic Freedom Fighters’ of Julius Malema. They, as planned, interrupted the speech by asking when Zuma would pay back the millions of taxpayers’ money that were spent on his home in Nkandla. Only after burly security men physically removed the opposition members from parliament did President Jacob Zuma read out a bland ‘State of the Nation’ speech. He didn’t refer once to what had happened around him, or why.
The morning after, newspaper reports, -which traditionally mainly focus on the flamboyant dresses and hats of the attending VIP’s on the red carpet,- spoke of the ‘decline of South African democracy’; of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani turning in their graves. One cartoon, in a reference to the now frequent electricity blackouts in the country, showed people lost in a dark house, not knowing whether they are in the House of Parliament or in another ‘house’.
Business Day editor Songezo Zibi placed the events in a chronology that started long before the State of the Nation. Referring to earlier revelations regarding the spying on journalists by the State Security Agency (SSA) and the chaos in the police and justice departments (now like the SSA, the tax authority, the electricity company, the state broadcaster and the post office all governed rather badly by direct Zuma appointees ), Zibi wrote that “the paralysis (…) of parliament cannot be divorced from the bedlam in (these) institutions of state”. He added that “the people ordinarily look up to parliament to apply the rules over the executive to ensure that order is restored”, but that this body had now “lost a significant part of its already eroded credibility.”
Veteran journalist and columnist Carol Paton linked the same chaos directly to the Zuma presidency. “There is little shock factor left in the abuses of power and process committed by his friends in his name; and there is no parallel with any other SA president in the extent to which he has personally benefited from holding office”, she wrote in the Financial Mail in an article titled ‘State of the Nation in Zuma’s iron grip.’
The article, which prophetically appeared on the day before the State of the Nation address, illustrated exactly what happened during it: “The ANC shields Jacob Zuma from public and parliamentary accountability in the belief that it is protecting the organisation.” This is not, Paton adds, because everybody in the ANC supports him, but because going against him is risky. She quotes political analyst Nic Borain, who likens any possible attempt to “dislodge Zuma and the calcifying networks of patronage that spread out from him” to the age-old problem of ‘who will bell the cat?’
The article mentions a few cases where Zuma-appointees, even as subordinates to government ministers now appear to be more powerful than the ministers themselves. “South African Airlines chair Myeni openly defied an order from the minister of public enterprises to reinstate (…) the CEO whom Myeni had unfairly suspended; the SABC chair and operating officer simply ignored ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa by refusing to stand down after being caught lying about their qualifications,” she writes.
On a more optimistic note, Paton also observes that some in the ANC have now cautiously started to ‘bell the cat’ by raising majorities at ANC meetings and blocking Zuma acolytes’ plans on –so far- rather minor issues. But for these efforts to cause the ‘pendulum’ of Zumafication to ‘swing back’, these would have to build up slowly and could only effect change in 2017 –when Zuma’s time is actually up. Paton concludes that the “damage that will be done to SA’s institutions and to the ANC itself by then will be more serious and put remedial action further out of reach.”
The man who seemingly cares the least about all the above is President Zuma himself. When he resumed his speech after the interruptions he did so with his now trademark giggle. The nickname ‘Dr Evil’ –in a reference to the similarly giggling character in the Austin Powers movies- soon surfaced on Twitter.