President Jacob Zuma is expected to deliver his 4th State of the Nation Address since re-election before a joint sitting of Parliament tonight. Tensions have been building in the days leading up to the occasion. In anticipation of further disruptions and protests, the president has taken a few steps to limit any possible disorder.
Nothing new can be expected from the actual speech. Expect phrases such as: “We have come a long way, but indeed much more needs to be done”; “The global economy is struggling, and government is hard at work in building a prosperous South Africa”; “radical economic transformation”; and so on.
On the other hand, the unofficial politics already playing out is significantly more interesting.
While the EFF insists Zuma cannot be allowed to address lawmakers, supporters of the president have pushed back. The Red Berets have hinted at possibly disrupting the speech, again. But this year, the ANC, and by extension its president, is ensuring their presence is felt.
The first hint came from an announcement that Zuma would address a crowd of ANC supporters shortly after gracing Parliament with his presence. This is the best excuse to have your support staff on the ground, en masse nogal. Needless to say, large rowdy crowds have proved a most useful deterrent to opposition from other groups.
This was followed by the events that played out yesterday. While a group known as SaveSA was calling on Zuma to step down, ANC supporters coincidentally disrupted the briefing. The ANC Women’s League also said during a prayer services it cannot be allowed that the head of state be insulted by opposition parties while they establish parallel governments.
Maintaining law and order
But perhaps the most worrying step taken was by the president himself. Earlier this week Zuma announced 441 SANDF members will be deployed for the entire week to help the police “maintain law and order during the Opening of Parliament.”
The move was widely criticised by, among others, opposition parties and Constitutional Law expert Pierre de Vos who questioned its legality on his blog, Constitutionally Speaking. While it is no secret that South Africa’s supreme law is not included in our president’s Top 10 Reading List, his decision to deploy the military raises a few alarms.
Parliament gave a vague response to questions on the matter. National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete told journalists the soldiers will not be in the parliamentary precinct during the sitting, but they would be stationed in places they (the presiding officers) often do not think of.
Military intervention is often the port of call in states where leaders resort to force to oppress political dissent. This is a long shot, but it’s a concerning site on a continent where democracies are often at risk due to leaders unwilling to surrender power or abusing their power to crack down on opponents. Even more so after South Africa’s drop to an ‘illiberal democracy’ in the recent Democracy Index. To put this in context, Russia was classified as such before Vladimir Putin succeeded in extending his term, in a country where coercion is common practice.
As for South Africa, the biggest concern is the apparent blur between the separation of powers. As head of the executive, Zuma commands both the police and the defence force, hence the importance of private security to address disruptions in the national legislature. Increased security often does not have the calming effect on the public.
The president’s decision, if anything, only heightened tensions, increasing the likelihood of clashes; either between supporters and protestors, opposition MPs and security forces, or all of the above.
Is all of this merely to avoid embarrassment in front of international audiences? Or is it perhaps an attempt to demonstrate his strength and influence – to command respect? Inevitably, it might be nothing more than another reason for opposition parties to criticise him on their own turf.