South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma’s last appearance in Parliament ended badly, to say the least. With Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members of Parliament (MPs) shouting ‘pay back the money’ as they demanded answers on Nkandla, Zuma was spirited out of the House to protect him from the embarrassment of being shouted down during Parliamentary question time.
He has since then judiciously avoided Parliament, as a further fracas broke out in the National Assembly in early November after Zuma was labelled a ‘thief’ by an EFF MP, again with reference to Nkandla.
Zuma’s failure to exercise his ethical responsibility on the waste of public money on Nkandla has become the noose around his neck; something he cannot seem to shake off no matter how hard he tries.
Yet, on Thursday 12 February, the president has to come to Parliament to deliver his state of the nation address. This is a commitment on which he cannot renege on. The EFF has been threatening to disrupt the event if Zuma does not agree to answer questions before then. Speaker Baleka Mbete has promised the EFF and other opposition parties that Zuma will answer questions on 11 March. Whether the EFF will stay true to their word and disrupt proceedings remains to be seen. Similarly, the jury is out as to whether Zuma will provide adequate answers to questions about the obscene waste of public money on his private home.
It is not a legal nicety for Zuma to come to Parliament, but rather a constitutional duty
The Parliamentary landscape has changed irrevocably since last year’s elections, which saw the EFF parachute into Parliament on the back of a million votes and 24 seats in Parliament. Since then the African National Congress (ANC) has shown itself completely unable to deal with ‘one of its own’ on the opposition benches. The EFF, on the other hand, has cleverly appropriated the language of ‘struggle’ as well as the Freedom Charter.
The party’s disregard for the rules and protocols of Parliament has left the speaker in a quandary. Regrettably, Mbete is so deeply conflicted as ANC party chair that her style of presiding over the House has left little doubt that her sole aim has been to protect the president. Yet, for Parliament to function optimally, both the EFF and the ANC will have to take their constitutional responsibilities seriously. The problem the president has is that it is not a legal nicety to come to Parliament and answer questions, but rather a constitutional duty. As things stand, he is in breach of that duty. The rules are clear and he has, not for the first time, broken them.
Having said that, the EFF’s nihilistic approach – while titillating for those who enjoy a spectacle – could have very real and undemocratic consequences when used in other spheres. But Nkandla and the ANC’s inability to deal with opposition aside, the president comes to Parliament against an increasingly gloomy economic backdrop.
The EFF’s nihilistic approach, while titillating, could have very real and undemocratic consequences
At Davos he continued the ‘we have a good story to tell’ theme, but here at home, the ‘good story to tell’ will be more difficult to spin. The economy is set for another year of slow growth and youth unemployment is at a stubborn 52%, according to the latest International Labour Organisation figures. It really still is all about the economy, yet it will be hard for Zuma to find the positives associated with low growth.
The Jobs Fund, which had as its target the creation of 150 000 jobs in three years, had created only 35 000 jobs by the end of 2014. It is also difficult to see quite how the National Development Plan goal of 6% unemployment by 2030 will be reached. Understandable anxieties about energy supply only serve to contribute to the gloomy outlook. In addition, the president will have to explain what progress there has been as regards the so-called ‘youth wage subsidy,’ which seeks to provide incentives to companies that employ young people for a period of two years through the Employment Tax Incentive Act, passed in January last year.
Throughout the course of the year, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has been saying that an across-the-board minimum wage was a certainty. Again, we wait to hear more and also how the social partners’ forum, convened by Ramaphosa under the auspices of the National Economic Development and Labour Council, is progressing. The forum was set up to deal with the deepening instability in the mining sector and the rehabilitation of communities.
Surely, too, the president will have to provide details of what progress is being made to ensure proper corporate governance and speedy delivery at state-owned enterprises, held captive by vested interests? Skilfully, Zuma has charged Ramaphosa with turning around Eskom, the South African Post Office and South African Airways. A tall order or setting his deputy up for failure – who can tell?
Here at home, the ‘good story to tell’ will be more difficult to spin
Increasingly, levels of corruption at local government level also need to be dealt with decisively. Local government has been in a perpetual state of ‘turn-around,’ where only 9% of municipalities have received unqualified audits.
There is an increasing feeling that all is not well and that the country is fast coming undone. We face a weakened economy with no true consensus between the social partners on how to fix things, and we see ever-increasing social instability – like recent events in Malamulele and Soweto. Both are symptoms of a deep malaise within government and a political leadership increasingly out of touch with what is happening in communities.
The transparent and responsive governance that the constitution envisages seems also under threat as our institutions are manipulated and used to fight factional battles – perhaps even at the president’s behest. It is Parliament’s job to oversee the executive, yet, if last week’s Police Committee hearing into the suspension of Hawks head, Anwa Dramat, is anything to go by, the ANC in Parliament does not see itself as holding the executive to account for bad or illegal decisions. Rather, it is fully prepared to ride roughshod over the rule of law for short-term political favour.
Of course, despite all these governance and economic challenges, Zuma can point to expanded basic social services; dramatic success in fighting HIV and Aids; the number of schools built and that fewer people now depend on the ‘bucket system’ for sanitation, as well as water provision in certain rural villages.
Zuma, like his party, has little choice but to hope that this constitutes enough of a ‘good story’ for the ANC to continue feeling confident that they can govern; at least for the foreseeable future. That notion will, however, be severely challenged in next year’s municipal elections – something that Zuma, like us all, would be well advised to monitor closely.
Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria.