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Calm speech belies chaos at Sona, wider crisis

Not getting her hopes up: Helen Zille said she found this old frock in the cupboard

What a difference 10 minutes can make!

Once Parliament had been cleared of his most vocal opponents, many of them by force, President Jacob Zuma started a State of the Nation Address (Sona) that would have seemed fitting in the most sedate of countries.

His final Sona as leader of the African National Congress started very dramatically, with disruptions and delays on various points of order. Disagreements, then anger, then threats and scuffles and, finally, ejections from Parliament.

Red alert on the red carpet: EFF MPS

Points of order made by various Economic Freedom Front MPs included the now familiar allegations that Zuma had broken his oath of office.

On this occasion the complaints were expanded to include accusations of skulduggery, including that members of the National Defence Force had plans for EFF MPs involving “biological weapons” and the less obviously dangerous cable ties.

The country held its collective breath as Zuma tried to push ahead with his speech while being shouted down.

Parliament soon descended into chaos, which escalated until EFF MPs were violently ejected. Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane led his party out in protest afterwards.

A bloodied and shocked EFF MP Fana Mokoena after his ejection from Parliament
And the winner is: Julius Malema addresses media in front of the big screens outside Parliament after his party was ejected

As the opposition parties regrouped outside Parliament, some of them quite battered and bruised, Zuma started his speech by calling on some safe old favourites.

This was safe ground indeed, it is hard to imagine upsetting many in South Africa by paying tribute to such heroes as Oliver Tambo and Miriam Makeba.

These tributes to the dead did, however, bring to mind Speaker Baleka Mbete’s seemingly callous outright refusal earlier in the night of a request from the Democratic Party that Parliament observe a moment’s silence for 94 mentally ill patients who had died in Gauteng.

News about these deaths, which were the result of neglect by the Department of Health, was still fresh in people’s minds. One might think the country stands united in sadness and horror at this hideous treatment of vulnerable citizens. Why not a minute’s silence then?

The show must go on, I guess …

With the House quieter and more friendly, Zuma spent 30 minutes talking about how much had been achieved in the last few years, including “successfully avoiding a credit ratings downgrade”, which some will consider immature.

Here’s one that doesn’t need a caption

The address made for uncomfortable listening, not just because of Zuma’s dedication to random punctuation and ‘mixing it up’ a little phonetically but because it felt so incredibly out of touch, inappropriate even, like laughter at a funeral … or giggling as your country burns maybe.

Listening to the address one would be forgiven for thinking that all was well in South Africa, with an economy well on track to better times.

Zuma spent time laying out in some detail the aims of the government’s nine-point plan to ignite economic development, which was announced last year. A veritable wishlist of what a development economist might propose as possible interventions to fix an ailing economy, it was pretty low on detail of what had actually been achieved.

State of the nation’s dreams? Yes! State of the nation? I think not!

Trotting out a few old legends and rabbiting on about policy without meaningful reference to practice seemed like a poor attempt at populism on a night when that prize had already been won by Juju and the Red Overalls.

It was almost 9.30pm by the time Zuma threatened to step up a gear, saying he would look at priorities for the year ahead. Those who let their hopes be raised that the best was still to come were quickly disappointed.

We were left feeling that the ANC is so divided and the guy at the top is just buying time dusting off old heroes, policies and ideas, fiddling, giggling … adding nothing.

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