What a fine kettle of fish

Crispen Manjonjo

THERE is no denying that South Africa is in the throes of the post-independence pangs which all African countries went through long after colonialism was jettisoned , there is also no denying that the cancer that devoured our institutions here at home is hard at work eating away their institutions too.

South Africa is being buffeted by the same ill winds which affected its northern neighbour — Zimbabwe. Besides the general malfeasance that has become part of our political culture here, their national airline South African Airways (SAA), is just a foot behind Air Zimbabwe following years of mismanagement, their power utility — Eskom — has been rolling out crippling power cuts for hours on end, something which is commonplace here.

Without putting too fine a point on it, there is no better reflection of the messy state of affairs in South Africa than the recent state of the nation address (Sona) and its ensuing debates the media there dubbed it the real state of the nation.

Apart from elections and budget presentation , the state of the nation address is one of the most important events on our neighbours’ annual political calender.

It is a curious event where the red carpet is rolled out for the political elites who also come to show off their sartorial elegance, with everyone decked out in their glad rags.

Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba seemed to highlight this in the days leading up to the event, saying he was boycotting Sona because it politically disconnected from the lived experiences of South Africans.

“Members of Parliament (MPs) swan around in their matric dance outfits, walking down red carpets like Hollywood stars. Debates follow, which appear to be more about witty come-backs, political point scoring and affirmation from equally out of touch MPs,” he said.

Indeed, the Sona lived up to its billing and turned out to be a damp squib which was disrupted for minutes on end by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

EFF, South Africa’s third largest opposition party, led by the firebrand former ANC youth league leader Julius Malema, had in the build up to Sona vowed to disrupt the presidential address if President Cyril Ramaphosa did not fire minster responsible for the state-owned enterprises under which the power utility Eskom and SAA fall. True to their word, the red berets, as they have been dubbed by the media rose on many points of order and heckled President Ramaphosa which led to the postponement of his address by at least 90 minutes.

The opposition party had vociferously objected to the presence of the last apartheid leader, FW De Klerk, in parliament during that Sona address.

What angered the EFF’s was that few days before Sona, De Klerk had in a televised interview denied that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

De Klerk had been invited to Sona by virtue of his being former head of state and former vice-president to Nelson Mandela, but Malema in his usual abrasive manner had called De Klerk a murderer and an apartheid denialist.

“Speaker, we have a murderer in the house. We have a man who has got blood of innocent people in this house, which is supposed to represent the will of our people — and therefore it is incorrect for you to have extended an invitation to De Klerk because De Klerk is a murderer.

“The people of Boipatong are still crying and De Klerk said apartheid was not a crime against humanity. He is an unrepentant apologist of apartheid; he is not willing to accept that apartheid was a crime against humanity,” he said.

So harsh was the exchange between the ruling ANC MPs and their opposition counterparts that one youthful EFF MP and the new spokesperson of that party, Vuyisani Pambo, rose on a point of order to irreverently order Ramaphosa to sit down, in as many words. After a brief break the address finally resumed and the EFF MPs walked out of parliament and media called their actions that night “dishonourable” and some parties even called for their salaries to be docked.

Despite whatever happened, there seemed to be a tacit agreement that the EFF was right about De Klerk who later ate a humble pie and apologised together with his foundation for the unfortunate comments he made in the run up to the day.

The ensuing events in parliament to debate their state of the nation address a few days later fared no better because sparks flew as MPs from the ruling party and the opposition engaged in cheap point scoring.

One ruling party MP, Boy Mababolo, accused Malema of abusing his wife, who turned it on its head and accused Ramaphosa instead of having abused his late wife.
In very unparliamentary language, the combative EFF leader said he had the ruling party — ANC — by the crotch and their MPs were behaving like fools.

After taking a lot of flak for cheapening gender-based violence to score cheap political points both Malema and Ramaphosa later apologised to each other .

Malema apologised for needlessly invoking the name of Ramaphosa’s late wife to score cheap political points and the latter for the behaviour of his MP who accused the former of abusing his wife.

Malema has however refused to let the matter die a natural death, he is suing ANC MP Mamabolo, his former colleague in the ANC youth league, for having defamed him in the statements he made in parliament and even way after the Sona address that he abuses his wife.

Hate him or like him Malema — who seems to have styled his leadership on the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — has mastered the art of staying politically relevant even when there seems to be no politics or rather when nothing is happening politically he create the politics.

A few years ago, his party drew infamy and criticism from some quarters for their campaign all over South Africa to remove and deface colonial-era statues like the one of Cecil John Rhodes at Rhodes University.

Populist as he seems, there is no denying that Malema has his hand on the pulse of the problems facing his country or rather issues affecting his growing constituency — if the results of the last elections where he overtook other fringe parties — is any guide .

He has become a bellwether of sorts, his style of leadership has seen more parties under the EFF franchise mushrooming around the African continent. It recently came to light that there is an EFF party in Namibia which won a handful of seats and there is also an EFF Zimbabwe.

Histrionics aside, South Africa’s parliament has provided both edge-of-the-seat entertainment and valuable lessons on how to be an “honourable” parliamentarian or otherwise.

Apart from his own shortcomings, Malema has become the South African government’s worst nightmare, he has managed to hold the government to account from the time when he and the EFF came to parliament dressed in red overalls apparently “in support of the suffering masses in South Africa” hoping to transform their august house from being a bedroom.

When the allegations of state capture emerged, they threw everything but the kitchen sink at the ruling party and barred former South African President, Jacob Zuma from delivering his state of the nation addresses, he was also given all manner of pejorative names including thief, butternut head and “Zupta”in reference to his links with the Gupta family.

In comparison, our own parliament pales into insignificance not least because some of our MPs have turned the age-old institution into a veritable bedroom where they go to sleep.

It was reported in our local media that some MPs in the last parliament finished their tenure without saying so much as a peep and when they did speak, they put their feet in their mouths. One of them was quoted recently bragging of how many people he killed, itself an insult to the idea of representative democracy.

What is more, our own state of the nation addresses are just run- of- the-mill rituals and cyclic regurgitation of tired promises and other claptrap, but particularly disconnected from the aspirations of the long-suffering Zimbabweans, some who do not even bother to watch it.

Differently put, our MPs have failed to bring the executive arm of government to account, some ministers have many times on record failed to attend question and answer session and nothing happens to them.

There is a prevailing belief that ever since MDC leader Advocate Nelson Chamisa and a host of other opposition MPs left parliament that the institution was shorn off of some of its important voices.

“The Chamisa voice is lacking in Parliament, the leverage that Malema has which Chamisa doesn’t is the voice in Parliament! We cant wait for a rally to listen or hear Chamisa, he should be in Parliament,” tweeted Alexander Rusero a couple of days ago.

While opinion is sharply divided and the jury is still out on whether the EFF’s conduct is honourable or dishonourable it is abundantly clear that our parliament sorely lacks a Malema effect to jolt it from slumber.

Manjonjo trained as a journalist and also graduated with a law degree from the University of South Africa in 2018. He is currently looking for articles of clerkship.