Parliamentary diary: Final 2015 performance from the Laughing President
It’s not a great time for South African morale. Student protests, economy in trouble, severe drought in parts of the country. But if President Jacob Zuma is feeling the heat, he did a good job of hiding it during his final Q&A session for the year in Parliament on Thursday. There were chuckles aplenty from President Zuma, while the message from the opposition was: We are not amused. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Opposition parties have fought hard for President Jacob Zuma to appear in the National Assembly once per quarter and answer questions from Members of Parliament. Their motives are obvious: it is important for the President to be seen to account to Parliament and the nation. And while the questions on the order paper are determined in advance – which means the President’s team has worked out uncontroversial answers for him long before he takes to the lectern – there is always the chance that something new, interesting or incriminating might arise from the supplementary questions that are permitted.
Except that nothing really ever does. As we’ve discussed before, the practice whereby the President takes oral questions in Parliament is promising on paper, but rarely satisfying in real life. If he dodges a question, or engages in evasive circumlocution, or laughs off an inquiry, there is no accountability for that at all. The Speaker of the House defends his dignity against all comers. For the important stuff, the President has answers painstakingly prepared; for the rest, there’s simply nothing forcing him to answer in any substantive way.
This was very much the case on Thursday afternoon, when the President graced Parliament with his final appearance for the year. Now that Parliament’s staff strike is over, there’s something of an end-of-term feel in the institution. Members go off to do constituency work shortly, and there is a sense of things winding down generally. Thursday’s National Assembly saw prominent figures like the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) Julius Malema absent, as well as several government ministers. No protesters lined the streets to Parliament.
The Jacob Zuma who appeared before the House seemed in fine fettle, perhaps relieved by the prospect of a respite as year-end looms. He was confident and jocular, punching back and laughing. Laughter was, in fact, the leitmotif of his appearance. The now trademark chuckling started early, and was sustained virtually all the way through, occasioning complaints from opposition MPs.
“The President answers the question, says absolutely nothing, and then he laughs,” protested EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. “It means decisions are jokes!” He added that Zuma should not mistake himself to be on “Trevor Noah’s show”.
The President exhibited no self-doubt in response – but unusually chose to tackle the topic of his laughter, which has been a headline-grabber before, head-on.
“I don’t know how to stop my laughter. Is it hurting?” he asked. Later an EFF MP suggested that the president had been internalizing too sincerely the old maxim that “laughter is the best medicine”. Zuma jumped on this with alacrity.
“I will always laugh,” he said at one point.
So what exactly did the president communicate, other than a sense of jollity? The best it got in terms of the supply of concrete facts was arguably Zuma’s response to what measures were being put in place to address the country’s drought crisis – one of his prepared answers.
President Zuma responded that four provinces – North West, Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal and Free State – had been declared as being in a “state of disaster” as a result of the drought. He said that government has set aside water tanks for use, was drilling new boreholes, and working on rehabilitating water and augmenting existing water sources. Farmers would be assisted with the provision of feed, he said, as well as more boreholes from which livestock could drink.
Mayors had been ordered to take action, Zuma said, in terms of implementing water restrictions, monitoring water usage and applying penalties where necessary. He urged municipal managers to prioritise the repair of wasteful water leaks and the roll-out of low-flush toilets, and said that grey water should be used for irrigation where necessary.
Zuma’s sharpest answer came in response to a question from EFF MP, Hlengiwe Hlophe, about the legitimacy of appointing presidential adviser, Vuma Mashinini, as a commissioner of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Opposition parties have expressed concern that Mashinini’s proximity to the presidency amounts to a conflict of interests. The President pointed out that former IEC commissioners have included ex-Democratic Alliance MP, Raenette Taljaard, and ex-National Party MP, Sheila Camerer; both individuals with clear political affiliations.
“Nobody complained,” he said. “Were we eroding democracy then?” He denied that he and Mashinini could be described as “friends”, saying that Mashinini had been recommended to the IEC position because of his skills.
On the matter of funding for higher education, President Zuma was vague and unconvincing. “There will be no [fee] rise, and there will be money,” he promised, without ever specifying the source of this money. He disagreed with IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa’s suggestion that the issue of student fees had only been put on the agenda because of student protests. “I’m sure you will recall the matter of free education is a policy of the ruling party, established decades ago,” Zuma said. He said that government had already begun to implement it by means of no-fee schools.
Pressed by EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi as to whether he personally supported totally free education, Zuma replied: “For the first time in the country, everybody agrees with the ANC policy that there must be free education. Wonderful!”
He assured MPs that the forthcoming Higher Education Amendment Bill would not interfere with academic freedom, while addressing matters pertaining to institutional autonomy.
“There must be an autonomy of the institutions so they can do their work without much interference,” Zuma said. But he also conceded: “Politically, my own view – there is no autonomy that could be absolute. It’s relative. Everything is relative.”
One potentially interesting question from African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) leader, Kenneth Meshoe, about whether the ANC’s warm welcome of Palestinian organisation Hamas in South Africa recently could be viewed as a snub to Israel, was batted away diplomatically by Zuma. He said that the government had deployed Middle East envoys, and had close relations with both Israel and Palestine in their conflict.
The DA had indicated in advance that the party wanted to see Zuma address the reports a R4-billion jet will be purchased for his use. Speaker, Baleka Mbete, shut the topic down at the beginning and at the end of the session, despite DA speaker John Steenhuisen’s assertion that it was “in the nation’s interest” for Zuma to address it, and DA leader’s Mmusi Maimane’s last minute plea: “But the President is here!”
Zuma was, however, forced to tackle another contentious issue: the matter of comments he made to the ANC KwaZulu Natal elective congress recently to the effect that the ANC comes before the country. This came up twice during his question session on Thursday. Zuma said that the ANC literally “came first”, in the sense that it pre-existed democratic South Africa: “The ANC was born first”. He also reiterated a previous defence, that he had made the comments in his capacity as ANC leader rather than South Africa’s president. Pressed on the matter by the DA at the end of the session, Zuma went on the attack towards the opposition. “We pay no attention when the DA meets, where you say all sorts of funny things. Why are you so interested in the ANC? You love the ANC! You can’t stop talking about the ANC!”
The DA’s Maimane also got in one last-ditch reference to Nkandla, asking the ANC when it intended to pay for the upgrades to the president’s home. A more ruffled than usual Maimane shouted the question despite Speaker Mbete’s repeated requests for him to sit down. It provided a scene emblematic of the parliamentary year: President Zuma escaping directly answering the hard questions, while the opposition fruitlessly hollers at him to account. DM
Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma answers questions in parliament in Cape Town August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.
Source: Daily Maverick