WHEN Pallo Jordan closed the debate on the President's State of the Nation address on Thursday he complained about the shabby contributions from opposition MPs. "The pity," the ANC veteran was saying, "is that from opposition benches, with one or two exceptions, all one hears is whinging and a litany of complaints." Cue much in the way of hubbub from the opposition that there was perhaps much to complain about - but no matter.
"We all agree that a vibrant and vocal opposition is essential to the health of a democracy," Jordan continued. "What is all too often missed is the quality of that opposition." The quality, for example, that had characterised DF Malan's "purified National Party" when they were in opposition to Jan Smuts' United Party. Of course, Jordan explained, opposition - in and of itself - was not necessarily a virtue but Malan's bunch were "an extremely vocal and vibrant" bunch all the same.
It must be said that that sort of vibrancy was largely missing from the ANC's contributions to the debate as well. The witless bickering and insults probably peaked with Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu's performance at the podium.
There were some amusing remarks from opposition MPs about Sisulu's bold penchant for Gorgon-styled wigs, but this was soon replaced by howls of outrage when she laid into the DA's new parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, with a near racist mania about how the Madam had "found another hired native to play second fiddle".
Sisulu was forced to withdraw the remark, but Maimane got a lot of that over the two days. It was not so much a baptism of fire as one of spite. Stone Sizani, the ANC's chief whip, was also chastised by National Council of the Provinces chair Thandi Modise, who presided over the debate, for describing Maimane as a "pin-up boy". (It was just the "boy" bit that was ruled as unparliamentary; there seems to be no argument that the metrosexual Maimane is largely fashion plate stuff.)
The headlines went to the Economic Freedom Fighters - thanks to their chaotic walkout on Thursday evening together with leader Julius Malema who was ordered to leave the assembly for refusing to withdraw his allegation that the ANC government was directly responsible for the Marikana massacre.
There was a warped logic underlying his intractability. "Chair," he informed Modise, "when police reduce crime, you'll come here and say the ANC has reduced crime, and when police kill people, you don't want us to come here and say the ANC government has killed people? That is inconsistent, Honourable Chair. I won't do that [withdraw the statement]. I'm sorry, I won't do that." As they left, EFF MPs shouted "You killed people in Marikana!", "You are murderers!" and "You murdered people!"
Malema and the Effniks, resplendent in their Teletubby outfits, were all back in the chamber on Friday morning for Jacob Zuma's response to the debate. But they needn't have bothered turning up - the president's speech was rubbish, way more so than his lacklustre and disappointing address on Tuesday evening.
Up in the press gallery, we weren't expecting fireworks, given the speculation about Zuma's health since his two-day hospitalisation a fortnight ago. His spokesman, Mac Maharaj, has since insisted that "the president is fine, attending to his duties and his doctors say there's no cause for concern about his medical condition" in response to news reports that Zuma has a cardiac condition, diabetes and high blood pressure.
That may be, but he appeared tired and listless for most of the debate; he has lost weight and he seemed frail. There was a glimpse of the old Zuma, though, when Deputy Minster of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams approached the podium on Thursday and the two greeted each other warmly. The deputy minister was wearing an outfit that could be described as being representative of the cocktail party/race day vernacular and the president's beaming smile may or may not have spoken volumes about her legs.
No such inspiration, alas, on Friday - although Zuma did offer a hint at another possible reason for his listlessness: too many late nights in front of the TV. Was Fikele Mbalula, the Minister of Sport and Recreation, taking note of the World Cup action in Brazil? "The standard is very high," he said, adding ruefully that it was unacceptable that our national squad wasn't taking part.
Still, there was always the netball. "As part of the empowerment of women and the girl child in sport, government has also launched the national Netball Premier League. We urge all to support the development of netball and all sports played by women." He didn't sound very convincing.
There was very little acknowledgement from Zuma of opposition contributions to the debate save for a general comment at the end of his speech that "some colleagues do not assist the country to go forward". If he was referring to the Effniks and their militant imbecility, it seemed a very docile and ineffectual response to a party whose supporters were at the time staging a noisy anti-ANC demonstration outside Parliament and baying for his blood. "Zuma must die!!" was the blunt message on one placard.
With that in mind, and Zuma's speech now over, it seemed appropriate that I attend the EFF post-debate press briefing in the nearby Marks Building and inquire whether the commander-in-chief had any concerns about the President's health.
Malema had a lot to talk about. Uppermost on the agenda was his expulsion the day before. Although it only applied to the remainder of Thursday's session - no more than a few minutes in reality - he could still be in serious trouble. When she closed proceedings on Friday, Modise said the behaviour of EFF MPs during their walkout had been "disruptive and unacceptable" and a contravention of parliamentary rules. She would be consulting Hansard and the debate's video recordings and the incident could be further investigated in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament Act; Malema could still be fined, suspended or made to apologise.
He was quite unapologetic at the briefing. In a display that was equal parts buffoonery and braggadocio he railed from one contradiction to the next.
He had, for example, no time for the rules of Parliament which "reduced it to a platform of [ANC] praise singers" and the EFF would not be told by the ruling party how it could "conduct its struggle in opposition to them" because "the day they murdered our people in Marikana it lost our respect and legitimacy as a people's movement".
Yet at the same time Malema accused the ruling party of disregarding the very same rules in their attacks on black opposition MPs - in particular, Mmusi Maimane, who was labelled a "commodity" in the debate.
"Mmusi is called all manner of things there, and his fellow DA chief whip and all of them don't stand up to defend him. But it is the responsibility of EFF to fight for black people and when we saw that a black brother was under attack, we stood up and we said that you can not compare a human being with bread. He can't be called a commodity. Especially when he is a black person. The presiding officer agreed with us on that point."
When DA MP Nqaba Bhanga was called a "factory fault" his party colleagues kept quiet. Had a white MP been called a "factory fault" then it would have been a different matter, Malema said. "But they can't protect black people. The DA should have protected [Bhanga] on a matter of principle. So, Mmusi Maimane, he must not worry. We are here to protect him. If his party can't do it, then [we will.]"
In another glaring example of such contradictory statements, he tore into the SABC's acting chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, over reports that he had been given a woman "as a gift" by Venda leaders. "How can Hlaudi just decide to become Boko Haram?" he demanded. "Those Boko Haram tendencies in the SABC will have to be stopped." Moments later he launched a sexist attack on Lindiwe Sisulu, describing her as "that Barbie doll".
When reminded that he himself had called the former DA parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, a "tea girl", Malema responded by labelling Maimane a "tea boy".
"They are all working for Madam (DA leader Helen Zille)," he said. "But they are black, they must be defended. Who said tea boys and tea girls must not be defended? That's what happens. Madam hires you, and when you are no longer making very nice tea you get dropped. Sometimes these house niggers, because they are inside the house, think they are the bosses, and they forget who they are."
But back to the question of Zuma's health.
"Well, " Malema said, "I don't know the health of the President, and I don't want to entertain his health. He is not my responsibility. The man is old and those who love him must tell him he must quit. He's old and he can't take it anymore. So he must do the honourable thing. President Zuma must look for an exit strategy and, for me, being sick was the best exit strategy. He must get the doctors to declare him unfit so that he doesn't expose himself that, actually, he's politically running away. He can say, ‘No, doctors say, I can't continue, therefore I will hand over.'
"We are beginning to get used to [Deputy President] Cyril [Ramaphosa] because during the sick leave of the president Cyril was everywhere. So I think that he must accept that his age is defeating him and whereas now the health is deteriorating, all of us, everywhere else, we've got grannies in our houses and once we see she is no longer well, even if she is a domestic worker, you start fighting with her that you must start retiring from work now. ‘Just stay at home, I will support you.' Those who have grannies and old mothers know that. You tell them, ‘Stay at home.'
"Actually, Zuma's children must be the ones that are fighting with him. Even if he was to live long, he's sorted. The man is sorted. He's got a salary for life. He's got protection for life. As to what it is that he's pursuing here, I don't know. Because the man is not adding value. He's not. There is nothing. If he goes on sick leave, there is no problem. The country continues as if nothing is happening because no-one misses his input. The ANC goes on lekgotla without him. The government goes on lekgotla without him. And takes decisions. There's never been a point where they say, ‘We are stuck here, we can't move because we need the input of the president.'
"So, he's not adding value. The man must move. . ."
There was more, but I'll leave it there. As a "no comment" it seemed to illustrate a point.
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