Cape Town - 140618 - Pictured is the EFF's Julius Malema. The State of the Nation Debate started today and will continue tomorrow as parties debate the address the President made the evening before. Picture: David Ritchie (083 652 4951)

Our MPs of today gift us great spectacles, but we deserve more substance over sound and fury, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - We all knew that Parliament would never be the same. We knew that the red brigade, with its characteristic anti-establishment outlook, would seek to stamp its way of doing things in Parliament.

So there wasn’t much surprise when the chairwoman of the National Council of Provinces, Thandi Modise, shouted “hold your horses”, or when she, after intermittent “point of order” exclamations, told Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema that there were simple rules that needed to be followed.

This, in the unlikely event you missed it, was the spectacle that unfolded in Parliament as esteemed members exchanged fire over President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address.

Shortly after his speech, political analyst Xolela Mangcu appeared overly dramatic on eNCA when he told us that our No 1 seemed not to want to be at the function and that South Africa deserved better than his lacklustre performance.

Harsh, perhaps, given that this was Zuma’s first appearance following his illness-induced leave. We surely did not expect him to jump around like that energetic musician Dr Malinga. But the fact of Zuma’s ill-heath did not mean his performance was not lacklustre. The illness merely partly explains it.

But why fuss about Zuma’s oratory? Whether he was ill or not, his poor performance was not unexpected. We were not shocked that this man of great prose suddenly became prosaic. No?

Granted, Zuma had somewhat raised expectations, not in terms of his performance but about the content of what he consistently had referred to as “drastic” economic policy to be unveiled.

This was especially so given the sovereign downgrading, the interminable strike that has reduced our platinum mines to a state of paralysis, and the fact of our contracting economy.

But a part of me knew that “drastic”, as generally understood, was beyond the reach of the ANC.

But my issue is the debate the dull speech was supposed to spark. A debate about the things that get us unhinged. Take the topical issue of what needs to be done to ensure security of electricity supply. It was lost on our parliamentarians. What of the sovereign downgrades about which we glibly speak without looking at how they impact on the poor, forgotten voters.

Yes, the cost of credit will be higher – but how do we elevate the debate to outside the realm of economists and bankers? For, indeed, this is not just their issue – it involves all of us, even if our understanding of the economy is merely that our “neighbours must not go to bed hungry”.

The issues that warrant the attention of our newly elected parliamentarians; that threaten stability; that force women like Nomathemba Hlongwane to show their bums in a desperate plea for attention, are many and myriad. Our new MPs couldn’t be bothered. They focused on themselves. How best to be fiery. How best to call each other to order – whistles and all. What is important isn’t whose plight they should tackle soonest so we don’t again see older people’s bums because they’re tired of using the bucket system. No. They have themselves to pay attention to.

What we saw this week was revealing about the state we are in. Yes, Malema was great sport, fun to watch. He reduced the ceremony to one great spectacle. He was possessed of the fire of Peter Mokaba and earned the ire of Modise, who, as an indication of how precariously things appeared to be veering off track, had to remind us she was “fit” to occupy her chair.

It was good that the ANC and Zuma were woken up from their slumber. Parliament is supposed to be home to robust discussions. We had somewhat given up on this. The reds are now in the house, and they’re relatively unruly (as most MPs are, anyway) and loud. This must be welcome. Given the choice between two devils, most South Africans would choose a loud Parliament than a place where overweight men fall asleep during proceedings.

But we deserve better than just loud.

Many of us still yearn for that 1994 Parliament. We yearn for great minds. Great debates. Parliamentarians possessed of free thought. We yearn for parliamentarians who applied themselves to issues, who researched their topics, who understood where we come from. Parliamentarians who were focused on what to do to restore the dignity many of our people were denied by apartheid.

That is what we deserve.

Our MPs of today gift us great spectacles, and Parliament will be fun. But fun can’t be the amalgam of what ought to happen in that important House.

Take Malema’s main contribution: Parliament must pass legislation declaring the salary increases of Marikana miners to be R12 500. This displays a disturbing level of ignorance about what Parliament can and can’t do. Parliament can’t negotiate salary increases. It can pass legislation on minimum wages. The fact that the difference is lost on the red brigade is a shame.

After the heated exchanges, I can, unfortunately, not call these State of the Nation debates. South Africans are no little wiser about how to resolve the greatest challenges of our time. Not from Zuma and certainly not from opposition parties.

Zuma is not known for beguiling prose and poetry. But one quote he has taken a liking to is from Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more. It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

That about sums up the farce called the State of the Nation debate this week. Our Parliament may never be the same, but we deserve more substance over sound and fury.

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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