Matt Guerrieri, Global Healthcare Technologies, Winter 2013
Apologies for my lack of updates to this blog! A couple weeks ago, an onslaught of project work usurped any free time I may once have had. It still hasn’t relinquished its grip. With the quarter coming to a close this weekend, however, I should have more time to send updates as I will be remaining in Cape Town for another 5 weeks.
This post actually comes from an entry in my journal dating back to February and a little bit of subsequent research.
February 19, 2013
The garbled chatter of people filing into the room, the uncomfortable rigidity of the mustard-yellow chairs, the vapid fluorescent lighting, the stale re-circulated air: the reality of being inside the South African House of Parliament erodes some of the majesty surrounding this epicenter of political authority. Nevertheless, the gallery buzzes with excitement. No radical changes are being made to the nation’s constitution, no new leaders have been sworn into office, and no controversial bills are reaching the floor for vote. Rather, today is an opportunity for the parties of the National Assembly, the powerful lower house of the South African legislature, to give each other a piece of their minds.
Last week, President Jacob Zuma delivered his annual State of the Nation address. In a typical display of political showmanship, the leader emphasized the past year’s achievements, professed the need for continued improvement, and navigated through contentious issues with grandiloquent generalizations and skillful evasion of details. Today’s response in the National Assembly, the powerful lower house of the South African legislature, provides the opposition parties a chance to criticize Zuma’s speech and the failings of his administration.
Almost inconspicuously, the chief executive slips into the room and takes a seat facing the chamber. Head bowed, lips curled imperceptibly upward into a haughty grin, he prepares to endure whatever political mud his adversaries are poised to sling at him.
The assorted Members of Parliament (MPs) retreat to their designated benches. Their colorful attire, ranging from three-piece suits to vibrant, billowy dresses and elaborately decorated batiks, enlivens the otherwise drab room. South Africa’s ruling party, the predominantly black African National Congress (ANC), sits to the left of the podium. On the right, the noticeably paler Democratic Alliance (DA) leads the opposition parties, which include the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and former ANC subsidiary, the Congress of the People (COPE). The other eleven represented parties occupy the spaces in between. In sum, the room’s demography reflects enormous diversity in age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
Ceremoniously, a black-robed usher brings forth the symbol of the National Assembly, a golden mace with a black, boxwood shaft and places it upright in front of the podium. The Speaker of the National Assembly requests a moment of silence before calling the meeting to order. The ruling party bows, the opposition bows, and the first orator, Mathole Motshekga of the ANC, begins his remarks:
“We meet today, heavy in the heart at the horrific and brutal loss of life of innocent babies, children and women through domestic and sexual violence. The scourge of this disease has taken hold in our communities and as much as we develop interventions… to stem this tide, we can all agree that the roots of this violence and the notion that life is cheap, can be traced all the way back to our dark and unjust past.”
This solemn introduction continues with a several minute discourse into the abominations of apartheid and the oppressive system’s agenda to “enslave black people through dispossession and make them dependent on their white employers for survival.” The oft-repeated exegesis concludes by reminding the South African people that it was the leadership of the ANC that finally ushered the divided country into its young democracy.
In the second chapter of his speech, Mosthekga parrots last week’s national address, peppering endorsement of Zuma’s priorities with lofty words like energize, grow, build, enhance, and promote. Clichéd platitudes and inspirational quotes by Nelson Mandela are greeted with boisterous cheers from the ruling side of the chambers. Across the aisle, you can almost hear the eyes rolling. Mosthekga’s adulation boils to its pinnacle with this confirmation of his party’s dedication to fighting South Africa’s blights:
“We will not turn away and fold our arms. We will rise to these challenges and know that when we do so, we are building this country brick by brick.”
Suddenly, Mosthekga changes direction. His tone intensifies. At last, he procures the meat of this afternoon’s monologue – disparagement of his opposition:
“By selling their soul and surrendering their autonomy to the DA … [the IFP, COPE, and other allied opposition parties] can no longer claim to represent the views and aspirations of [their] constituencies. They can no longer claim to enjoy freedom of thought and freedom of opinion… It is an antithesis of a multiparty democracy system… to have the throng of political leaders from diverse ideological persuasions dancing to a tune of the neo liberal and conservative agenda of their political master.”
Mosthekga’s accusations of spinelessness among the smaller parties and his obvious contempt for the DA are met with vigorous applause and unabashed jeers. His lament over the dissolution of the multiparty system portends some irony given South Africa’s history as a one party democracy. Since 1994, the ANC has never held fewer than 63% of the National Assembly, has maintained at least two thirds of the provincially elected upper house of Parliament, and accordingly, has retained absolute control of the executive.
By the time Mosthekga returns to his seat, the crowd is fired up. Thirty-two-year-old DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko is next to the podium. Forgoing lamentation of the past for criticism of the present, the rising political starlet begins her denunciation:
“The South African people have lost confidence in President Jacob Zuma and his State of the Nation address showed why.” She pauses, turns her head, and casts a pointed look at the ample man seated on the dais behind her: “He offered a reheated version of last year’s broken promises based on spin and lip service… Ours is a president who says one thing to appease South Africa, and then does another to please himself and his inner circle.”
With calculated but not dispassionate dictation, the young MP portrays the president as self-serving and out of touch. She mourns the nearly half a million jobs lost since Zuma first assumed office. In an appeal to young voters, Mazibuko employs a histrionic anecdote about a struggling new mother, conjecturing that Zuma does not “feel for the five million South Africans under the age of thirty-four who are unable to find work.” In this vein, she criticizes his administration for failing to adopt a youth wage subsidy that promised tax breaks to employers who hire young people:
“The worst betrayal of all was the President’s abandonment of the Youth Wage Subsidy. This would benefit hundreds of thousands of-“
“Of white people,” interjects a cracked, grumbling voice behind me. The outburst – an inevitable reminder of the country’s enduring racial tensions – comes from a leather-skinned, older man whose faded black, green, and yellow tee shirt boasts a dedicated allegiance to the ANC
“-Of young people,” continues the parliamentarian, undeterred, “by absorbing them into the formal economy and providing them with real opportunities.”
After disparaging the President’s economic policies, Mazibuko denounces his intimate relationship with political bigwigs in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (CONSATU) who play a major role in education policy. She declares, “As repayment for the re-election debt he owes to COSATU, the President endorsed teachers’ unconditional right to strike,” which could potentially leave children without teachers for weeks at a time.
Finally, Mazibuko, like Mosthekga before her, reaches the apogee of her litany – allegations of Zuma’s corruption: “Most presidents’ characters are revealed over time. This president was compromised from the beginning.”
Her evidence includes Zuma’s refusal to publicize incriminating documents despite court orders. Without this information, the National Prosecuting Authority eventually dropped over 700 charges of fraud against him in a seemingly suspicious maneuver. Mazibuko additionally condemns his use of the “hard-pressed public’s” tax dollars to fund the R200 million ($22 million) upgrades to his personal compound. Finally, she urges the President to forgo reelection, charging that “South Africa is a great country being let down by a weak President” and concludes:
“There will be a day; a day when the voices of young South Africans everywhere will finally be heard; A day when our country’s confidence in its own greatness will be restored… There will be a day; a day when South Africa soars under the leadership of a new president and a government led by the Democratic Alliance.”
With that, the opposition parties explode into emphatic applause. A supercilious roar of laughter erupts from the ruling party. As the afternoon lurches forward, the room becomes more and more unruly. In a particularly exuberant address, impassioned COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota foments utter indignation in ANC devotees by comparing the construction of Zuma’s private mansion to the expansion of Hitler’s personal palace during the Nazi regime. The animated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, expounds upon the reasons why his party has aligned with the opposition:
“The ANC believes the state is there to be pillaged…. The rest of us believe the state is an instrument to serve the people of South Africa, to meet the needs, wants and aspirations of our people.”
Conversely, ANC representatives like Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba rush to defend Zuma. Gigaba argues that the President’s address was a report on the progress made since his 2012 speech and a plan of action for 2013:
“It would have been total folly to present a new vision again in 2013 on top of the vision the president presented in 2012, which has only just begun to be implemented. But, of course, the opposition wants us to be stuck on endless visions so that they turn around and ask the question, ‘where is implementation!’ When you implement the vision, they turn around again and ask, ‘why is there no new vision?”
The cycle of criticism and defense continues.
Finally, after nearly three hours in the contentious gallery, the time has come for our small group of university students to head home. As the heavy wooden door swings shut behind us, the debate inside rages on. Like that of the United States, the South African government is highly polarized. In contrast to the US, however, a single party has exerted uncontested political dominance in South Africa for the past twenty years. Now, it appears that loyalty to the once exalted African National Congress has begun to wane. Crippling allegations of corruption, venality, and overall poor leadership have led to the rapid growth of the opposition movement.
High tensions and emotional investment in the issues at stake incite some leaders to make aggressive, cutting comments and even launch personal attacks on the floor of Parliament. While thoughtful argumentation and intellectual debate are healthy components of an effective government, stubborn animosity and immutable contempt stagnate progress like a virulent, debilitating plague. Today’s dramaturgy serves as a vivid reminder that the line between the two can be extraordinarily fine. The danger of crossing it may be dire.