#SONA2017: Is that the state of this nation?


President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces in Cape Town, South Africa February 9, 2017.

President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces in Cape Town, South Africa February 9, 2017.

Bathos begets bathos. This, of course, is an adaptation of other adages. But in the wake of the underwhelming "debate" (the very term seems misapplied when considering the two days of talk by Members of Parliament about the State of the Nation Address) over two days, the final response by the president of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, ought not to surprise keen observers.

Over the course of two days in February, ministers and MPs took to the podium to deliver themselves of statements in relation to the speech which was delivered after an hour’s delay and some dispiriting violence in and around Parliament the week before.

Political point-scoring, the trading of jibes and insults, quibbles about rules, and stand-offs between presiding officers and MPs marked those two days. One has to wonder how adults paid to the tune South African parliamentarians and ministers are paid still seem fuzzy about simple administrative issues at the centre of their daily work life. Is it mediocrity, incapacity, or the deployment of the wrong people for the job? Some people repeatedly rose on spurious points of order. Others cited the same rule as applicable to entirely different situations. 

The theatre of cruelty visited upon the listener who values accurate communication in language is a form of purgatory. Because, after all, bathos begets bathos. The presiding officers’ ability to apply rules fairly and consistently amid the chaos was also a matter of concern. Partisanship and bias cannot taint the presiding officer’s work in Parliament. When an MP is named and pointed out, described, and still the presiding officer professes not to know who is being spoken of, one has to wonder about their capacity to maintain order in the house.

In his reply to the debate, the president of South Africa, like many speakers from the ANC in the debate on the "State of the Nation Address", merely repeated details from his speech. His disappointment at the conduct the week before, of course, cannot be taken at mere face value. He, after all, had hardly defused the tension by announcing the deployment of South African National Defence Force members around Cape Town to "maintain law and order". The gesture constituted an ugly display of "kragdadigheid" reminiscent of times past here, and of unpleasant places elsewhere. We, the people, still don’t know what the threat was that triggered this show of force, nor will we ever likely know whether the threat was real or manufactured.

In the age of "alternative facts", many critics of the #SONA2017 will point to numbers around education delivery which do not reflect the realities they face in their work or their communities. The question of mud schools, the president conceded in his reply, was one in which government had not met its targets.  Of course, this, many would respond, was the case in some other matters as well, whether on the Moloto Road project, or on questions of land reform. The question, of course, is whether those who praise government achievement care to hear the stories of people who feel excluded from such achievements – which cannot be denied, are real, and in many respects, significant – as something other than a denial of their own achievements?

With the government’s record in state-owned enterprises, the insistence that there will be a state-owned mining company and a state-owned bank may set off alarm bells for many. None of the concerns raised by critics in the muddle that was the "debate" seem to have been adequately addressed. The same can be said about the concern around Eskom and the nuclear deal: repetitions of statements from the past do not answer the questions of concerned citizens.

But then, that may be the signal reason for the lack of true debate and engagement. As MPs jeered at the statements of MPs not of their political party, and cheered their own party colleagues, little listening seemed to be done. This, of course, is a habit from elsewhere in South African life. In the spectacle of competitive sport, nothing your own team and its supporters do is wrong, and anything your opponents and their fans do must be delegitimised. We saw this with the issue of the moment of silence requested at the #SONA2017, which was observed at the start of the debate days later. Similarly, the merit of a critic’s views is often obscured by the dismissal of the speaker for not being one’s political fellow-traveller.

It is therefore ironic that the President of the Republic, leader of the majority party, should suggest that we ought to engage one another respectfully despite our political differences. In debate, listening to and truly hearing your political opponents would strengthen the capacity to anticipate their critiques in future and thus strengthen your own argument. If we’re only ever jeering at speakers of views different from our own, how will we ever know what they truly are, and how will we develop our own?

But, of course, such a listening process would require of one to respect the speaker, at some fundamental level, and the process in which one has agreed to engage them. By jeering, one loses the opportunity to hear them, and thus to respect them, and therefore to engage their views, thus possibly changing their view, and also your own. But such is the stuff of a utopia, no-place, when Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli is asked to reprimand MPs for making "cat noises".

Levity has its place in defusing tension in conflict, but when the substance in debate is still missing because MPs are too busy struggling to follow the rules of debate, and reduce a space of argument and reasoning to a place of rhetorical flourishes and demagoguery, the ability to make political progress suffers.

Maybe we should all be listening more carefully to one another, and admit that we sometimes mis-hear or misunderstand or misconstrue one another’s meanings. And in that sense, the State of the Nation Address, the debate which followed it, and the president’s response to the debate of his speech, all reflect the true state of South Africa. Too much jeering and insulting, labels flung like blunt weapons meant to hurt, and not enough critical listening in order to learn, even from what one may consider the misguided beliefs and mistaken views of others.

Also, we may have opponents, but in a democratic society, only cartoon villains are or have enemies.