Analysis: This week's SONA 2016 debate, an ideal electioneering platform


zuma Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA.

The sequel to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address unfolds over two afternoons from Tuesday as MPs take to the National Assembly podium to debate last week’s presidential remarks. With local government elections later this year, it’s the perfect opportunity to electioneer from all sides of the House - regardless of the cloak of parliamentary rules and protocol of this annual ritual in the national legislature.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane already said he would table an economic growth plan for South Africa. The opposition party’s focus on the 8.3 million jobless South Africans was a feature, or at least a lapel button, at last Thursday’s SONA 2016. More can be expected on this point this week, alongside plans to combat drought, stimulate growth from a market-drive perspective and all that, in the wake of a post-SONA Twitter blitz: “8.3 million South Africans cannot find a job because President Zuma has one”.

Maimane as leader of the largest minority party in the national legislature – that’s the official parliamentary designation even though the DA prefers the title of leader of the opposition – is given the largest chunk of speaking time among those on the left side of the House (left, from the perspective of the presiding officer, that is). It remains to be seen if Maimane can live up to his “broken man” speech of last year, which is regarded by many as one of, if not the best speech in Parliament for a long time. It’s been a tough start to the year, as his DA became mired in its member Penny Sparrow’s description of black South Africans as “monkeys” – and the stage-managed anti-racism message delivered by Maimane at the Apartheid Museum last month has not quite captured the headlines as anticipated.

Economic Freedom Fighters' leader Julius Malema last year took to the podium to deliver a harsh repudiation of the ANC’s insistence it was delivering on the 1955 Freedom Charter in the year of the 60th anniversary of that milestone document. Given the new #ZuptaMustFall slogan (a reference to close links between Zuma and the Gupta families), there could be fireworks, particularly with the zero words the president spent on corruption in his speech last Thursday evening.

The EFF also has a point to prove, as the municipal poll in over 22,500 voting districts for the 257 or so councils will test its structures, established at break-neck speed following its 1.16 million vote performance in the May 2014 elections. Having promised to contest all wards, there’s much at stake: a lacklustre performance at the hustings may give the governing ANC sufficient ammunition to poo-poo the fighters; a good, or even excellent, performance will underscore the red brigade’s explosive entry onto the political landscape.

Given the EFF’s ability to adapt and fine-tune its political strategy and tactics to, in many ways, capture prevailing sentiments, the SONA 2016 debate is an opportunity not to be missed. Malema, as leader of the second biggest opposition party, will get the second largest slice of parliamentary speaking minutes, as determined by Parliament’s formula based on seats in the House. Malema has a track-record of using his minutes to the maximum.

The other 10 small opposition parties will battle with their speaking time, which is limited to three minutes for those with one MP like the Pan-Africanist Congress or ex-PAC MP turned leader of the African People’s Convention, Themba Godi.

But the focus this week must be on the ANC benches, and whom the governing party selects as its speakers in the parliamentary SONA 2016 debate. The ANC, of course, by virtue of its 249 seats in the House, gets the lion’s share of speaking time.

Who the ANC fields as speakers will be key. Will it be ministers and/or deputy ministers, who serve at the president’s pleasure in the Executive and can be expected to tow the correct line? Will it be committee chairpersons, who have a stake in continuing the correct line as their jobs could be on the line? Of course, the strategy may just be drawing into the laager in a show of unity, similar to the one seen immediately after last Thursday’s speech, when ANC MPs emerged from the National Assembly singing in favour of their president.

The news that Zuma’s lawyers at the Constitutional Court effectively had thrown the ANC parliamentary caucus under the bus emerged after the party’s two-day workshop by whips and committee chairpersons on the political strategy for the year ahead. It’s understood another meeting was called to discuss the implications of the legal arguments in ConCourt.

The ANC in Parliament for two years vigorously defended the president by applying parliamentary rules and traditions in his favour as the Nkandla debacle dragged on. In an effort to close this particular bruising chapter in South Africa’s politics, the ANC MPs clung on to Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko’s report that even the non-security features like the R2.6 million swimming (fire) pool, cattle kraal, chicken run, visitors’ centre and amphitheatre were security features. That report, instituted by Zuma according to correspondence submitted to Parliament, was thrown out in legal arguments before the Constitutional Court last week, as the president conceded before the top judges of the land that the public protector’s findings on the presidential Nkandla homestead were not up for debate.

The governing party by no means is unified in its approach to the Nkandla debacle: in mid-2015 then ANC MP Paul Mashatile, now Gauteng ANC chairperson is back as MEC in his home province, distanced the party from the Nkandla spending at the Daily Maverick’s The Gathering. The ANC national executive committee (NEC), or highest decision-making structure between the elective conferences, had not taken a view on the matter, he said then. This Sunday’s newspapers reported on the rifts within the governing party: both City Press and the Sunday Times highlighted the party had advised Zuma to take the public protector’s report on review to court - the only legally-available option to challenge findings – or to simply make a plan to pay up.

Amid these dynamics it could be telling who takes to the podium for the governing ANC. What they will say is largely predictable, unless there is a radical shift away from previous years’ inputs. Traditionally, the ANC speakers use the presidential SONA address as a hook to showcase delivery of the governing party. Each speaker is allocated a topic – one speaks on state-owned enterprises, another on women, yet another on infrastructure etc etc - and underscores the ANC’s performance as “leader of society” amid repeated “Siyaquba! (We are moving forward)”. Of course, this being an election year, a good number of digs at the opposition are anticipated, and visa-versa.

The political grapevine has it the municipal poll would be held in early August. According to the law there is time until August 17, as the elections have to be held within three months of the date of the past election, or May 18, in the 2011 municipal poll.

All signs are that it will be a tricky two days’ of debating in the National Assembly. Zuma’s account of the state of the nation in 2016, while heavily focused on the economy, left much of the detail to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to flesh out in his Budget speech on February 24.

While cost cutting measures like limiting the numbers and size of overseas travel - Zuma may have taken a leaf out of the governance book of Tanzanian president John Magufuli, who limited his administration’s overseas flights shortly after taking office in November 2015 - may have been among the few concrete announcements, these are not new. Then called “cost containment measures”, or more colloquially the “haircut”, steps were already announced in December 2013. It’s understood departments pushed back, particularly around the limitations on ministerial cars. In his October 2015 medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS), then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene said: “ We recognise that there is not yet full compliance with these measures”. Some DA number crunching (expect more of this this week) showed just R2 billion of were saved in the 2014/15 financial year from the previous year’s R25 billion spend on travel, entertainment, catering and use of consultants.

While Gordhan’s Budget speech no doubt is heavily anticipated in the current economic troubles, for now all that the MPs have is the president’s address. This week’s debate is the first of several opportunities to electioneer in the parliamentary calendar, including the budget vote debates that by law must be wrapped by mid-year and yet another DA motion of no confidence in the president.

It’s bound to be an interesting two afternoons - and on Thursday afternoon Zuma may just find his voice, lacking a week earlier in what has been described as a far from inspiring address on the state of the nation.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick dated 14 February 2016.


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