The State of the Nation address, also the official opening of Parliament, is a strange juxtaposition of spectacle and speech, writes Craig Dodds.
The State of the Nation address, also the official opening of Parliament, is a strange juxtaposition of spectacle and speech – the frills and spills of the red carpet set against the worthy bluster of politicians.
Outside, the political elite are met with a tableau of flashgun bursts, haute couture and military precision, shedding their attachment to the want beyond the parliamentary precinct.
The cannon fire, the marching bands, the calculated concealment of flesh is a ritual transformation of ordinary men and women into fabulous embodiments of power.
Inside, they disappear into another series of poses, in which they stake out their claim to moral authority during the debate that follows the president’s address.
They enter the stock exchange of piety, where they are clothed in sheer posture.
“I am mindful of and moved by the fear and distress that unemployment casts upon millions of my fellow South Africans,” said DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane in his response to President Jacob Zuma’s address, adding he was “compelled to speak out on behalf of these people”.
“Our people mandated this movement to come and speak on behalf of the homeless, the landless, domestic workers, security guards, farm workers, cleaners, waiters and waitresses, recipients of social grants, construction workers, the unemployed and poverty-stricken masses of our people who are forgotten by the ruling elite,” said EFF “commander-in-chief” Julius Malema.
Symbols are dislocated and meaning slips out of reach in this theatre of righteousness.
ANC MP Yunus Carrim accused the EFF of turning the garments of labour – the overalls and domestic workers’ outfits – into statements of fashion.
Definitions – like that of the word “radical” – are hard to pin down as the politicians pick over the carcass of meaning.
“Mr President, you tried to speak about radical socio-economic changes in your speech last night but nothing you said was radical,” said Malema.
Maimane was equally scathing, but didn’t spare Malema.
“You see, ‘radical’ plans are not in and of themselves good simply because they are described as ‘radical’ – just like wearing a beret does not make you a revolutionary.”
Ideas, policy, data are confused with personal worth.
Thus, Malema accused Zuma of lacking the “courage” to pursue a “radical economic agenda” and of having “sold out the revolution”.
“However you look at it, in 1995 unemployment was 15 percent and now, at this moment, it is at 25 percent, or 36 percent with an expanded definition.
“Seventy percent of this demographic are the youth.
“This is your legacy; you have more than doubled unemployment.”
Maimane said until Zuma had fully explained himself on Nkandla, the country “cannot trust in his word”.
The president’s “trustworthiness”, or lack thereof, takes the place of assessing his government’s effectiveness or the merit of its proposed course of action.
While opposition figures sought to magnify Zuma, making his failings the focus, the president tried to disappear behind a wall of information, stripped of all reference to himself.
In its overwhelming breadth and simultaneous lack of a narrative thread or binding theme, the speech offered no point of entry.
Except for the speculation this would have nourished, it could have been delivered by anyone.
In his first public appearance since he mysteriously slipped out of view, Zuma performed the ultimate vanishing act – seemingly present, yet his words so remote it was impossible to find him in the speech.
Against the opposition parties’ efforts to pin everything short of the weather on him, Zuma took refuge behind a stupefying torrent of information.
In fact, Zuma has benefited for years from opposition attempts to make everything about him.
While his enemies wrestle in the mud, far more serious questions slip away, unasked, unanswered, or unnoticed.
Maimane raised the energy crisis – a consequence in part of poor planning and bungled execution on the part of the government, with terrible consequences for the economy and employment – but it made little impact.
In the foreground of Maimane’s speech, Zuma hovered like a sphinx.
Malema claimed the ANC government “massacred 34” mineworkers at Marikana – an allegation that may or may not be properly tested at the commission of inquiry that was established by Zuma.
Maimane touched on the mismatch between spending on education and the quality of the outcomes but, again, the question was drowned in righteousness.
“How does the department with the biggest budget from our national fiscus, and the biggest budget in Africa, deliver the worst maths and science education on the entire planet?” he asked, exaggerating just a bit.
“These statistics shame us all,” he continued.
Unreal as parliamentary debates can seem at times, they touch on issues that have real consequences outside.
It is, also, not as though Parliament never deals with these questions in earnest.
In its committees and in the parties’ study groups and caucuses – away from the grand show of the televised debates – a lot of hard work is done, often with important results.
These efforts are usually overshadowed by the posturing on the floor, giving the impression Parliament is little more than the ultimate reality show – a deliberate confusion of life with theatre.
The characters loom larger than life. What they say hardly seems to matter.
“No one will remember what you said last night,” Malema said to Zuma, and he may have been right.
People are more likely to remember Malema’s devastating wit – “You are a man of tradition, a tradition of empty promises” – than Zuma’s ponderous articulation of his government’s plans and opposition critiques of it. But, considering the future of the country is at stake, that would be a shame.