On Thursday night, 9 February 2017, South Africans watched a spectacle which – in all honesty – was entirely predictable. The State of the Nation address, the platform for the critical analysis of the plans that the executive government has for South Africa, was marred by disruptions and violence.
The evening started off as most had predicted. Points of order were raised even faster than hard hats would later be hurled. The EFF disrupted proceedings – just as one would expect from the populist opposition party. From the get-go, it was clear that the EFF were there ready to fight and planning on going out of Parliament with a bang. Their leaders hammered on security issues relating to cable-ties, unauthorised security personnel and the shaky recent history which the House has had with dealing with uncooperative members.
Parliamentary security officials were called in to forcibly remove the red-clad members of Parliament – after which the DA (and most other opposition parties) walked out in protest to the degenerating condition of our legislative house.
A full hour and a half later, the President started with his State of the Nation address – after having spent the better part of that time fiddling and watching Parliament go up in metaphorical flames. Our country’s president addressed the nation, giggling as always – but it was at this point that most families in South Africa switched off their television sets. The entertainment was over, after all. And it is precisely here where the true damage was actually done.
The State of the Nation is supposed to be the occasion where our head of state plots his or her course for the future. This is the opportunity for the President to announce policy and the place to raise political issues. And these policies and issues must be scrutinised by the public. The State of the Nation is not only an opportunity for elected officials to engage, but also the prime time for South Africans to think for their free selves.
Yes, these details will be discussed by some. For the next few days, we will see some media discussing the irony of our President who wishes to cut back on red-tape for businesses to be established with greater ease. But, in the mind of the public, these issues get blurred in the water already filled with the mud from political mudslinging and the blood from security personnel punches.
In South Africa, we seem to have an inability to host constructive, yet critical political debates and discussions. The reason that we do not enjoy ideological plurality in South Africa is exactly because of this inability to discuss ideas. Dissimilar opinions get shot down and slurs get thrown around. If we have members of Parliament calling a man born in Soweto a racist – without any substance – do we really expect anything different on our campuses, at our businesses and in our society as a whole? If one of the highest spheres of political life reverts to baseless accusations, do we really expect it to be different for other parts of our country?
Rather than having policy discussions within our broader public on whether or not the newly agreed minimum wage will bring economic growth, our broader public remains glued to their screens and Twitter feeds as if this were Skeem Saam or Game of Thrones. Yet when all the “fun” ends people’s interest disappears as quick as the People’s Bae (Mbuyiseni Nlosi) did out of Parliament, wrapped between four security officials.
The State of the Nation address should be a daunting experience for the President – not a guilty pleasure for the viewing public. This sort of chaos is the exact application of smoke and mirrors that the ruling party wants and needs. The commotion and turmoil is a lighting rod, which distracts the broader public from the issues which actually do matter. Social media is filled with posts about members swearing in Parliament – and almost entirely devoid of those which note that the President has had the same 9 point plan for three unsuccessful years.
The focus on the ruckus in our legislator is important – but we won’t see an end to this type of chaos until the country changes course. And the only way for this to happen is for our broader public to realise what is actually being said after the fun and games have ended and the real political decisions get made.