Wearing exactly the same suit and tie as the last time he responded to a debate on his state of the nation address, President Jacob Zuma delivered a bland response to a heated and bad tempered two-day discussion of his annual speech.
The president was dead set on introducing radical socioeconomic transformation as his administration’s guiding light for 2017 but his speech failed to inspire.
The president found his spark when he went off script. Nowhere did it get more Trademark Zuma than while he addressed the Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald, who had called for a moratorium on affirmative action and accused Zuma of hating white people.
He also spoke with great zeal when addressing the dysfunctional crime justice system following his visit this week to the Nyanga police station which, according to police’s crime statistics for the past few years, has recorded the highest number of murders in the country.
Zuma appeared relaxed and more confident compared with last Thursday when he took to the podium after an hour of insults from opposition MPs who sought to block him from presenting his state of the nation speech.
His mood may also have been buoyed by the absence of his tormentors, the red army of the Economic Freedom Fighters, who stayed away from the debate because they refused to be an audience to an “illegitimate president”.
This year’s state of the nation was most likely Zuma’s last as the president of ANC, the most powerful position in South Africa’s politics – as opposed to the lame duck he will become after the party’s national elective conference in December.
One would have expected that Zuma would want his state of the nation address and his defence of the address to be memorable.
His prepared speech was flat, with streaks of vintage Zuma when he spoke off script. In his monotone voice, he stuck to the party’s latest catchphrase “radical socioeconomic transformation”.
Opposition parties had shot it down in earlier, saying it was just that – a catchphrase bound to fail like many other policies and policy proposals before it.
“The message of Sona2017 is clear and simple. The political freedom gained in 1994 must be accompanied by economic freedom for the black majority in this country, and the Africans in particular.
“We are not going to be apologetic about that,” said Zuma.
“Radical socioeconomic transformation will help us to grow the economy in an inclusive manner, ensuring true reconciliation and prosperity,” he said again, as he did a week earlier.
He went on to repeat the catchphrase several times in the 70-minute speech. Julius Malema must have been envious.
Speaking of Malema and his EFF; they may not have been in the house, but their antics of a week ago did not go without condemnation.
The state or image of Parliament is clearly becoming a serious concern with the ANC’s top dogs. Zuma, like Jeff Radebe, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Jackson Mthembu, pleaded with MPs to restore the decorum of Parliament.
Zuma described as shocking and unbecoming the MPs’ behaviour, saying it traumatised millions who were following the session on Thursday night – including the young imbongi he brought back to Parliament, a week after chanting MPs drowned out his praises for the president.
Interestingly Zuma, who had previously pleaded with and even berated National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete about lack of decorum in the house, spoke directly to MPs.
Has he lost confidence in her? Dumped her? Used her and dumped her as Malema alleged last week? That is a question for another week.
But Mbete, like the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane and John Steenhuisen, would not get a direct mention from Number One. It’s a big deal. Prince Buthelezi got several mentions. Even the leader of the one-man caucus, Themba Godi, got one.
Maimane had earlier in the week launched his most scathing attack on Zuma and the ANC government.
Statements like “from the Marikana 34 to the Esidimeni 94, this government has turned against the people of this country”, and references to the ANC as “this murderous government and the liberator turned oppressor” must have hurt and it showed in the faces of senior ministers who occupied the front benches alongside Zuma.
Maimane also spoke about the over-the-top security measures employed by the state – which saw a deployment of the army within the parliamentary precinct and kept the citizens at bay – and he didn’t forget Zuma’s laughter in the brawl as EFF MPs were evicted last week.
Zuma did not respond to any of that. It was a louder “F Bomb” than that of a certain Premier League member.
It became apparent in the state of the nation debates that the DA was indeed in campaign mode and disenfranchised youth were its target. Its speeches were crafted to not only poke holes in the ANC narrative but presented clear and detailed alternatives directed at the so called “lost generation”.
This is where the EFF may live to regret its boycott of Parliament sessions. Parliament offers a legitimate platform for political debate and shunning such an opportunity may just come back to bite them.