12 February 2015 marked the 8th Annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) in South Africa. This year’s Address was shrouded in exciting mystery. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a political party with third most members in parliament, vowed to disrupt the event in order to demand accountability from the President for the “Nkandlagate” scandal. And that it did.
The EFF’s #OccupyParliament, is a lot like #OccupyWallStreet, except its not the 99 percenters against the 1 percenters. #OccupyParliament is fat cats against fat cats.
The media in South Africa — and abroad — has carried various analyses on the implications of the EFF’s disruptive role in parliament. Any analysis of the implications must begin by asking, “What is the SONA?”
Professor Pierre de Vos wrote in Daily Maverick that the SONA is, “No more than a dry, uninspiring and pompous event showcasing the wealth, power and tawdry glamour of politicians – has this year taken on a sharply different meaning.”
The Prof argued that, “Disrupting this event may therefore be strategically unwise as a party who disrupts this flagship event, runs the risk of inviting the wrath of the ‘opinion-formers’ and media bosses who control the quality and the quantity of publicity a political party receives.”
Aryn Baker also wrote for TIME that, “The pomp and pageantry of the annual address easily lends itself to ridicule.” She complains that the SONA has become “a carnival that avoids country’s real problems”.
There is no denying that the SONA is not a political boiler room. And it was never intended to be. It is not a platform for the President to undertake an extensive economic and political analysis of the state of the nation.
The event was intended for reflecting on the successes of the previous year and to set an agenda for the year ahead. The effects of the SONA are far-reaching. First, it enfranchises the millions of South Africa who, for decades, were on the fringes of political process. The event is not intended for pundits and analysts, who have plenty of policy materials to go on anyway. It is intended for the ordinary South African to see and listen to the President speak about a broad vision for the nation.
Second, the SONA spiffs up confidence in our democracy. For most blacks who experienced apartheid, government was a monster to be feared. Government lived in palaces, behind shadows, where no ordinary person could go. The SONA represents an effort, albeit a scant one, to change the public’s perceptions about the daily machinations about government. The people must see, hear and, if possible, feel the national government.
In a strange way, the efforts of ordinary men and women, of citizens and freedom fighters alike, culminate in events like the SONA. Millions will tune in today to listen to the President speak. They will bite and chew on his words for hope.
I wonder then whether the EFF understands the significance of its decision to disrupt the Parliament. I wonder whether they understand that #OccupyParliament is more than just a protest, it is a coup.
Democratic institutions in South Africa are not perfect but they work. Ordinary South Africans have a chance at a better life because of democracy. And their chances improve as the country matures in democracy.
Disrupting the Parliament, for no reason other than to make a point, is a pathetic decision. And it’s decisions like this that eat away at our democratic institutions. The EFF does not want, or even expect, real accountability. It’s actions are no more than a publicity stunt; a scene for the camera.
There are plenty was to embarrass the president or, God forbid, to demand accountability. The courts, for example, have the power to review the President’s decision to ignore the Public Protector’s report. The High Court (Western Cape) has said as much.
The EFF should have exhaust that and other remedies, before rendering our economic institutions meaningless. That, of course, would’ve been the case if the EFF was not fascist and anti-democratic.