In Focus

The State of the Nation Address 2017: Pandemonium reaffirms South Africa’s international democratic reputation

ArinaMuresanSouth Africa’s historical end to racial discrimination and welcome back into the international community is widely admired. The reform from deviant state to a model world citizen holds immense symbolic potential and thus shows that it is possible to conform to international democratic and governance standards; even if the deviant system in question has been entrenched and institutionalised, as South Africa was. Since 1994, political activism and representation in local politics is ever present in South African political culture, and the fight for political enfranchisement has changed to include the social and economic emancipation. Local politics is increasingly competitive and the short comings of service delivery and public accountability, which headline in the form of student protests, land redistribution, corruption, access to sanitation and infrastructure, is often used to discredit the leading political party, the African National Congress (ANC).

The recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) commenced with the expected ceremonial proceedings, however disruption shortly ensued. The most vocal members of parliament were divided in the pro- and anti- Zuma camps. The Economic Freedom Front (EFF) chanted Tsotsii, as President Jacob Zuma was introduced. Shortly after, the EFF raised their concerns of physical safety. They cited that members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) were present at the event and had cable ties and injections, which were to be used to subdue EFF Members of Parliament (MPs) at any given moment. Subsequently, the Democratic Alliance (DA) requested the recognition of the Esidimeni 94 tragedy; mentally ill patients were moved from Esidimeni hospital to ill-equipped and unlicensed centres, these patients subsequently died due to neglect, starvation and improper careii. The Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and Speaker of National Assembly, who hold ANC memberships, denied the motion; regardless, the DA responded by standing in a moment of silence. As the President took the floor, he was interrupted by various points of order, which included the EFF’s concerns of physical safety, the vote of no confidence, the presence of a paramilitary, and the question of legitimate leadership. The intention was to use the event and party politics to undermine the ANC, particularly the leadership of President Zuma. In an attempt to maintain power and control over the situation, the Chairperson and Speaker snubbed the constitutional concerns of the political parties. Later, MPs were asked to leave or were removed from Parliament. Notably, violence erupted and the EFF was forcibly removed by the white shirts; MPs consistently demanded clarity on this unidentified security force, which gave the impression of a paramilitary. However, they received no answer. However, the EFF wanted to be forcibly removed from Parliament, a symbolic action in its own, and therefore their actions would give the Chairperson and Speaker no choice but to make use of the protection force.

These displays have become a norm in Parliamentary meetings, and the performance at SONA 2017 made the ANC Chairperson and Speaker, and by extension pro-Zuma supporters, appear weak for their decisions and reactions; 1) they cannot accept differing interpretations of the constitution, and 2) they can only maintain order if they rely on force and intimidation. These two elements continue to be severely criticised by political and civil society opposition to Zuma’s leadership. But what does this pandemonium mean for South Africa’s democratic image? South Africans watching the Address were embarrassed and confused by the behaviour of parliamentarians, and citizens are increasingly critical of the state of leadership and the appearance of an inadequate government. However, this is the positive aspect of SONA 2017, as it reflects the perseverance of the South African democratic spirit. The pandemonium has attracted a wider audience, thus encouraging citizens to take a larger interest in party politics and active citizenship. Opposition parties are demonstrating that an unchecked executive or personal dictatorship cannot be tolerated in a democratic government, and South Africans and international partners may be forced to view the ANC run government differently and thus change their perceptions.

While the opposition to the pro-Zuma camp has portrayed the SONA 2017 to be just another dog and pony show hosted by an undemocratic ruling party, the chaos reaffirms the desire and interest to bring order to the South African government. It reminds citizens and international observers that they have the right to access information and it allows them to formulate their own opinions about government. Moreover, the chaos displays the differing opinions of the political parties that citizens have voted for. This is paramount in upholding the quality of democracy. South Africa is often referred to as an international darling because it reformed and accepted a progressive liberal democracy and government. The ANC continues to congratulate itself on achieving liberation by using a culture of revolutionary beliefs and actions, and so they should not regress to an authoritarian expression of leadership.

The SONA 2017 event is directly linked to international issues of democracy that question: who should have the authority to govern, who should have the legitimacy to enforce rule and punishment, and who should be held accountable when these rules are not upheld. These elements can highlight the short-comings of any government. However, in the case of the ANC, avid critics maintain that the ANC needs to make a change and perform according to a democratic standard that political parties, civil and social commentaries call for. The ANC cannot escape the public scrutiny, they are aware the world is watching but perhaps they are too arrogant to see the effect of their pervasive power.

In spite of the unprofessional conduct of parliamentarians on the 9th of February, this was evidence that certain freedoms are actively exercised in South Africa under the protection of a somewhat-healthy democracy. Internationally, many people aspire to the idea of living in a democracy and this show of contestation is desirable in a country. Opinions should not be hidden under the auspices of ceremony and hierarchy or the threats of subduing opposing views. This form of honesty allows other countries and international partners the opportunity to form realistic impressions and interpret the risks associated with South Africa, which in turn forces the South African government to be more accountable. In retrospect, parliamentary disobedience contributes to a positive image of South African democracy. It portrays South Africa as a country with the capacity to appreciate and uphold international democratic and global governance values. Thus, opposition actors should continue to fight for change and their understandings of social justice because it strengthens the quality of South African democracy and an international image as a responsible, legitimate and accountable country.

Ms. Arina Muresan is a Researcher on South Africa in Africa and International Diplomacy at the Institute for Global Dialogue. Her research interests include South-South cooperation, African economic diplomacy and political risk analysis. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.


i A South African word for an individual who engages in illicit or criminal activities.
ii Nicholson, G., ‘94 deaths later: Life Esidimeni report brings light, but only justice awaits’. Daily Maverick. 13/02/2017. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za.

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