SONA: The inside story

David Bullard writes on his successful mission to infiltrate the parliamentary bunker



It’s been a long time since I was obliged to wear a suit and tie in 37 degrees of heat but there I was last Thursday in my blue pin stripe, as a guest of the Hon John Steenhuisen, picking my way through the steel barricades on the way to parliament to hear how the ANC propose to save the country from failed nation status.

In contrast to the hysterical reports of some other news sources I don’t find it odd or in the least bit threatening that Cape Town goes into lock down on the opening of parliament although, if you’ve never visited Washington or London I suppose this might seem a bit alien to you.

Neither did I experience the “grim faced policemen” and the snarling of police Alsatians apparently witnessed by other members of the fourth estate, one of whom compared the scene to roadblocks at Gaza or Aleppo. I daresay I could write much livelier copy if I had but I can only report what I experienced and that was extremely helpful police officers (I never knew we had so many) who directed our small party of DA foot soldiers towards the parliament building by the shortest route.

Far from having to pass through a series of checkpoints as claimed by another journalist, the security in the building was fast, polite and efficient and we were never warned by these “grim faced officials” where we could walk and where we couldn’t. In retrospect I think this may have been because we were all rather smartly dressed in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion and looked nothing like journalists. If you want to be treated like a VIP then it helps to look like a VIP.

The State of the Nation Address (or SONA as it is known) should be a fairly serious setting out of the governing party’s plans for the coming session. However, over the years it has deteriorated into something between a Halloween parade and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The more kitsch-minded ANC MP’s love it because it allows them to preen in front of the TV cameras and gives them a chance to display all the expensive fashion items they have accumulated by fair means or foul over the past year. The loonier wing of the party regard it as an opportunity to dress up as Elton John and Vatiswa Bam-Mugwanya must be congratulated for choosing a pair of specs from The Crazy Store which made it impossible to tell whether or not she had dozed off during Cyril’s lengthy soliloquy.

The EFF obviously have a secret facility somewhere near parliament where they can change out of their Hugo Boss suits and into the unflattering red overalls and ill-fitting berets or hard hats for which they are known. While this uniform may occasionally get them mistaken for maintenance men it does discourage individualism within the party; a cornerstone of socialism.

The chief advantage as I see it of holding SONA in the evening (apart from attracting a TV audience) is that the various parties can entertain VIP guests at cocktail events before the president talks. Apart from being a wonderful networking opportunity it also gives guests a few hours to consume enough food and wine to bolster them for whatever is to come.

At around 5.45pm it was time to make our way to the National Assembly and take our seats for the presidential address. In the normal course of events taking your seat at a show over an hour before it is due to begin would be pointless. But SONA is run rather like a Bruce Springsteen concert and the warm up act this year was the EFF massed choir. So while we scanned the gallery for past presidents, celebrities and ex ministers the EFF serenaded us with well rehearsed songs. Sadly the words meant nothing to me but I’m sure they were all about building a prosperous new South Africa together.

The puzzling thing about the EFF is that, while they seem quite happy to draw an MP’s salary and enjoy all the perks of power, they don’t appear to want to observe the rules of the club to which they choose to belong. So when proceedings finally got under way and the house and those in the gallery rose to their feet to respect the entrance of the Speaker and the President the EFF remained seated. Sitting directly opposite in the gallery I had a clear view of them and I couldn’t help noticing a fair amount of what has been identified as “smirking” on social media in recent days.

Nazier Paulsen really has it down to a fine art but other EFF members are coming along nicely. It does make one wonder quite what the EFF have to contribute to the future of South Africa if they aren’t even prepared to respect the conventions of parliament. Having said that, they were fully expected to interrupt proceedings but, apart from the aforementioned smirking disrespect, they behaved like well behaved toddlers at an adult gathering, preferring to preserve their energy for a bit of aggro after the main proceedings.

The apparent threat of a right wing plot to assassinate the CiC, Mr Julius Malema, prompted one Marshall Dlamini to smack a cop; a measure that appeared to neutralize the threat of Malema’s impending assassination. If only John F Kennedy could have been as fortunate.

The EFF’s strong suit does seem to be violence and destruction. They’re never so happy as when they’re either hitting someone or vandalizing a business. Their election manifesto appears to have been put together by people high on nyaope and will undoubtedly appeal to those in a similar state of mind. However it may be worth adapting a line from George Orwell ahead of May 8th: If you want a vision of an EFF future imagine a boot stamping on a white face-forever.

Judging by the pained expression on many faces the Presidential speech wasn’t expected to go on for almost two hours. This was no occasion for those with weak bladders, particularly after 3 hours of pre-event wine consumption. But we did eventually escape and made our way through the steel cordon, past the non-existent snarling Alsatians and the grim faced policemen and finally to the reassuring colonial splendour of the Mount Nelson hotel where I lit a Cohiba robusto, ordered a large Manhattan from Sim at the Planet Bar and contemplated dinner in the Lord Nelson restaurant.

If you ever want a comforting reminder of the now controversial benefits of colonization then the Lord Nelson restaurant is the place to go. A vast wood panelled room of unsurpassed elegance which celebrates the glorious days when all the pink bits on my Philips school atlas belonged to the British Empire. I strongly recommend the scallops and sweetbreads with crispy prosciutto and the springbok loin with a sublime chocolate fondant to finish. And as you sit there, enjoying wonderful cuisine in these elegant surroundings and sipping a dessert wine savour the moment and spare a thought for Venezuela because, after May 8th, it could all still come to an abrupt end.

Follow David Bullard on Twitter @lunchout2


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