I STAY in the city bowl area near to parliament. For the past 22 years I’ve witnessed the preparations for the State of the Nation address at close quarters. Each February it has always been a much-anticipated ceremony, a ceremony signalling the start of the parliamentary year and for us journalists – a new season.
Every year SONA has followed a set pattern in its preparations, and every year it has been entirely predictable. Hedges get trimmed and the parliamentary precincts get a makeover. We have meetings with GCIS – the state communication body – and technical issues are thrashed out.
However, this year things were markedly different from the outset. Government, which is understandably cautious on security concerns, appeared to have embraced paranoia – as opposed to rationality – in the light of EFF threats to disrupt President Zuma’s address.
The first sign was the feed, in simple terms the cables that TV networks and radio stations use to get their images and sounds to the public via the parliamentary chamber. Instead of the networks having their own feeds, everybody was linked to one feed.
This immediately set off concerns that should something happen inside parliament, the feed would be cut and the media left in darkness. It had already happened with the parliamentary broadcast when the EFF had first challenged the president to pay back monies spent on Nkandla.
To put it bluntly, we were facing the real prospect of state censorship during a state of the nation broadcast; a blackout within an august body in which every South African had a stake, and a right to know what was going on – regardless of unparliamentary behaviour or not.
Added to this, I witnessed things I’d never seen in terms of preparation for SONA. Days before the event, there was unusual helicopter activity over the CBD and barricades were set up in places I’d never seen them before.
Security paranoia really showed its hand, I feel, when we learnt that the president would not be entering the House from Government Avenue as per tradition, but from the Tuynhuis side – something that we observed would keep him a distance away from the media and the crowds on the red carpet.
We also heard that there was a heavy security presence at parliament, and that should something happen, the EFF members would be dealt with. We did not doubt that; and it did not take much to notice that there were more men-in-black than usual prowling the precincts.
However, when Cabinet Ministers, MP’s, honoured guests, ambassadors and the media entered the building it became evident that security fears had gone into overdrive. I was in a broadcast van when just before 6 pm my phone started to buzz with the startling news that the mobile signal had been turned off in the House.
This enraged the media, who in an act not historically seen in parliament before, began to chant “bring back the signal”. ANC backbenchers chanted “ANC! ANC! ANC!” but they could not drown out the ensuing Twitter storm.
I believe it was the switching off of the signal – a heavy-handed Big Brother blunder – that catalysed the ensuing chaos, combined with the rabbit-in-the-headlights response of the Speaker. She appeared to have been flummoxed by a flurry of points of order – not from the EFF as expected – but other opposition parties.
Her initial response that the secretary of parliament would “look into” the cell phone signal saga was an unfortunate turn of phrase. It was probably not her intention, but she managed to further antagonise those who wanted a more definitive response on their basic constitutional rights to communicate.
I’ve covered SONA in various capacities since the 90’s, from the dying days of apartheid to the highs of 1994 and the recent challenge of 2015. I use the word “challenge” here quite deliberately, without political euphemism.
And whilst the proceedings of SONA 2015 may have surprised, disgusted and disappointed many watching it unfold on television, I must admit I don’t feel that way.
As someone who has covered the South African story both sides of apartheid, I am proud that South Africans still have the spark in them to protest against injustice, to stand up for their rights, to ask the difficult questions and to face up to our historical cancers.
Our democracy, given its socio-political landscape, is by definition an emotional and extremely demanding one. Yes, there are questions of procedure and appropriate protest behaviours. But surely the bigger issue is the underlying distress about our future prospects, and the current trajectory of the ruling party: a party that sometimes forgets its power is borrowed from us.
From within the beast of the mighty ANC, and from without it, it is our inalienable right as citizens to interrogate executive power and to ask for genuine accountability from our public representatives. As author Songezo Zibi says about our problems in his recently published book, Raising the Bar, Hope & Renewal in South Africa:
“Society is the pool from which leaders emerge. If we cannot fix our society’s socio-economic value system, there is absolutely no hope that the promises of our politicians will be anything but conventional platitudes that serve only one purpose, to con citizens into believing them to be something they are not.”
Zibi adds that the necessary moral and ethical transformation of South African society in the 21st century cannot be effected in parts. Nothing will be achieved if power doesn’t orientate itself towards exactly the same values as the society it is meant to serve. Political power, he says, must be an outcome of society itself, and not be a blunt instrument of control.
And SONA 2015, as noisy and as chaotic as it was, is an encouraging sign that many South Africans are not prepared to be bludgeoned by that instrument.