The State of the Nation Address (SONA) has been postponed. The SONA is usually delivered by the president of the country at the opening of parliament in early February and sets out the government’s broad agenda for the coming year.
With increasing evidence of outrageous levels of corruption by the ruling elite in which the current president is a central figure, opposition parties have made recent SONA occasions highly fractious affairs. Citizens have tuned in less to hear the bumbling, stilted delivery of the president’s speech about the expected bumbling, stilted delivery of services, and more to witness the disruptions, the fisticuffs and the forced removal of MPs, all of this while bemused members of the diplomatic corps, the judiciary and the citizenry watch from the gallery, shaking their heads at what has become of Nelson Mandela’s “never again” country.
As leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and president of the country, Jacob Zuma wielded enormous power through patronage, the appointment of his henchmen and women to strategic positions, and control of elements of the intelligence services. However, the election in December 2017 of the country's and party's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to lead the ANC (at the expense of Zuma’s former wife, who was the other contending candidate) has seen a rapid shift in the balance of power within the ruling party.
The postponement of SONA is unprecedented in post-apartheid South Africa. It is clear that Zuma is on his way out, with the new ANC leadership, concerned about their fortunes in the 2019 election, suddenly finding their voice about “eliminating corruption”, engaged in manoeuvres to oust Jacob Zuma. Zuma is the very embodiment of corruption, from the exorbitant expenditure of taxes on his personal home to the outsourcing of cabinet and state-owned enterprise appointments to a family from India, in order that they may brazenly rape the public purse, with Zuma’s family members and associates being major beneficiaries of this looting.
Behind the scenes the ruling party is now managing the exit of a stubborn president, an individual wilfully blind to his shortcomings, who has repeatedly shown that he cares less about the country than about his own party (and has said so on various occasions); the party is now learning – if they did not know it before - that their former leader also cares less about the party and its well-being than about his personal fortunes.
There is laughable talk from party spokespeople and leaders about arranging a dignified exit for the president, about not giving in to the opposition parties’ intentions to humiliate Zuma. Whether the new ANC leadership is capable of moving beyond the mantle of corruption and disregard for the country’s constitution that has wrapped itself around the party ever more tightly over the past eight years will be made evident in whatever deal it strikes with their country-wrecking and party-wrecking leader. It is ridiculous to use the words “dignity” in relation to Zuma, who has presided over the country’s junk status, mortgaged the country’s future to bandits from abroad, and severely damaged the country’s image and its capacity to act both across the African continent and globally, humiliating the country on the international stage.
With numerous charges of corruption, racketeering and fraud already hanging over his head, and with his clearly treasonous actions inviting further legal sanction and long-term imprisonment, Zuma would want assurances of indemnity from prosecution in exchange for stepping down as president. If granted in some form or another (which is likely to be subject to legal challenges) this would confirm the ANC as a party that disregards the country’s Constitution in favour of its own, that elevates its leaders above the law, and that allows one person to hold not only the party, but the country hostage to interests that have nothing to do with the well-being of the majority of people.
The postponement of SONA is a metaphor for where we are as a country. We are a country in waiting. The dreams of 1994 and our hopes as citizens have been deferred. Again.
Never did we think nor believe that we would sink so rapidly into the quagmire of shameless looting, of trampling on noble ideals that had to do with improving the lives and life expectancy of the country’s citizens, of undermining a Constitution that political leaders love to boast about as the most progressive in the world, while they engage in the most reactionary activities – like promoting women abusers to high office, protecting individuals responsible for the murder of whistleblowers and corruption busters, and lambasting the judiciary whose job it is to uphold the Constitution in the midst of a most venal and self-serving elite.
How long we wait, though, is up to us. We grow impatient with politicians not taking strong action quickly enough. We have been co-opted into a system of five-yearly elections, believing that this is the ultimate expression of democracy. And so we wait for our opportunity to punish the ruling party at the next election. In the meantime, the corrupt and the devious hold sway; treasonous criminals rule over us.
That we have tolerated a corrupt president for this long is an indictment on us all. In other countries, ordinary citizens have ousted corrupt, power-hungry presidents through sheer citizen power, occupying public spaces in vast numbers, with international attention focused on them and their simple, but just demand: for the removal of the president who facilitates and presides over a corrupt and elite-serving state. From Egypt to the Ukraine, South Korea to Burkina Faso, the governed have said “Enough! No more.” Long-serving, powerful presidents have been toppled by citizen power.
With the inevitable decline of Zuma and the rise of Ramaphosa, we as citizens run the risk of again putting our faith in politicians rather than believing in our own power, our agency and our capacity to bring about change.