Millions across the country watched President Jacob Zuma’s 10th state of the nation speech. It wasn’t so much the speech they were interested in, but what would happen in the inevitable confrontation between Julius Malema’s Red Overalls and the White Shirts, Parliament’s private bouncers.
For the viewers, the show was not disappointing: more visceral, more violent and more emotional than before as the EFF insulted Zuma to his face, calling him a criminal and an "incorrigible man, rotten to the core". When their violent eviction finally came, the EFF gave as good as they got, swinging punches and hard hats, throwing bottles and damaging property on their way out.
The EFF’s tactics — disruption, chaos and violence – are doing enormous damage to the institution of Parliament. Given our history, the democratic Parliament should symbolise all that South Africans fought for in defeating apartheid. While those who sit on its benches represent different and often opposing interests, they share a common allegiance to the Constitution and to the institution itself.
The EFF has run roughshod over that ideal. But it is not the first to do so. As it rightly points out, Zuma has violated the Constitution and broken his oath of office. The ANC has condoned him doing so. As damaging as the violence is, it is simply not possible to call Zuma – as parliamentary convention demands – an honourable member.
It is a standoff that will last to the end of his rule. We probably have two more Zuma state of the nation addresses to come, and those two or so years stretch interminably before us. But while the 2019 election seems far away to the captive public, the ANC and Zuma himself are keenly aware that they do not have much time to revive their flagging popularity at the polls.
Coupled with this urgency is the inescapable truth that for a large majority of people, the democratic era has not brought prosperity. About half the population lives below the poverty line. They are stuck in the poverty trap with limited avenues – such as quality education – to extract themselves through individual hard work and determination.
The responsibility to create a more prosperous and equal society lies with all of us. But as Zuma said, when he finally got the opportunity to speak on Thursday, the state has a particularly important role to play in intervening to open up opportunities and level the playing field. None of the mainstream political parties nor civil society formations, apart from a small fringe, disagrees with the need for faster and more effective political and economic change.
As damaging as the violence is, it is simply not possible to call Zuma – as parliamentary convention demands – an honourable member
Yet in his speech, the president was completely out of ideas. While committing to "a new chapter in radical economic transformation", nothing he said on land reform, black economic empowerment or mining was new. The speech showed the extent to which the ANC government is in a bind. With the pressure on from the electorate to deliver, the imperative for tangible change is palpable. But after 20 years of governing, it has failed to fire up the engine of transformation.
There is now a temptation to throw out those policies with the bath water. But it is not the policies or plans that have failed — they have barely been implemented. The National Development Plan, for instance, contains important elements required to broaden and deepen economic participation.
Even the Nine-Point Plan, which Zuma presented in his state of the nation address in 2015, contains proposals that, if implemented, would make a difference to the investment climate. There is nothing wrong with calling for faster and more meaningful economic change; in fact, it is imperative. But let’s work to put the basic foundations for economic growth in place instead of resorting to radical rhetoric.