South Africans take to the streets ahead of Zuma’s State of the Nation address
Crowds gathered as some 440 soldiers rumbled into central Cape Town on 8 February to back up the more than 6,000 police already guarding parliament ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address tonight.
Children danced and mimicked a military band marching up and down Roeland Street, the main road leading to parliament. Cannons were test fired and smoke billowed towards Table Mountain as soldiers prepared for the military parade.
What opposition politicians have criticised as the “militarisation of parliament”, as they questioned its legality, is part of a wider political drama. Veteran political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi told the state-owned SAfm radio station that the government had a “siege mentality” and that military deployment symbolised the “breakdown of trust between the President and the people”.
A few hundred metres from parliament, the governing African National Congress (ANC) is organising its “people’s assembly” on Grand Parade. That is the main street in Cape Town and where Nelson Mandela made his historic speech hours after his release from prison in 1990.
Allies of President Zuma are trying to rekindle the Mandela magic, and they hope that tens of thousands of ANC supporters will gather in front of giant screens that are to relay Zuma’s parliamentary speech. That is highly unlikely, with the ruling party facing deepening economic and political turmoil.
In recent years, parliament has become an increasingly hostile place for Zuma, with members of parliament from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) barracking and dismissing him as having lost constitutional legitimacy because of myriad corruption scandals.
Once a station for politics geeks, the local parliamentary TV channel has become required viewing for South Africans trying to work out what is happening in the government. Some expect a repeat today of previous confrontations, like when parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete ordered militant EFF members to be thrown out of the chamber.
Tonight, Zuma will push his message of ‘Radical Economic Transformation’, spelling out policies to speed up land redistribution and to land some blows against “white monopoly capitalism”. That is the ANC’s shorthand for the country’s four big banks, pension funds, two leading supermarket chains and two cellphone conglomerates that dominate the national economy.
At the same time, Zuma insists his government’s policies are working, despite the worst jobless figures in 12 years and the continuing risks of a downgrading of the country’s debt to junk status. “Prospects have improved for the years ahead,” Zuma told business professionals in Cape Town on 7 February.
He quickly qualified his upbeat opener: “After two decades since democracy, the black majority still remains largely outside the mainstream economy […] We have to rework and sharpen our transformation model and, more importantly, demonstrate commitment and empathy.”
As the A-list politicians enter parliament in their finery tonight flanked by thousands of police guards and sundry demonstrators, Zuma will struggle to get that empathy across.