The state of the nation: Limbo? Purgatory?


File: President Jacob Zuma presents the State of the Nation Address (SoNA) to a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament (National Assembly and National Council of Provinces) on 11 February 2016 at 19h00.

We wait, like Vladimir and Estragon perhaps, for Godot, salvation or perdition. We have questions and no answers. Itineraries and statements, from presidents plural. The head of state’s programme has been released. He will be at an event to mark the Nelson Mandela centenary, and awards for Ubuntu. The leader of the party of which he is a deployed cadre has issued a statement indicating that there have been fruitful and constructuve discussions about the way ahead.

But 8 February 2018 was supposed to give South Africans an insight into the state of the nation. South Africans were meant to hear what the government makes of and is doing to engender that imagined community they are meant to think of themselves as being. We know the broad strokes, of people struggling with social cohesion against micro-aggressions and structural violence. The body politic of the 24-year-old democratic nation is marred by the pockmarks of inequality. In our millions we are straining against a toxic tide of economic woes.

But we shall not hear from our government what it makes of its own work over the last year. Not on the scheduled date, anyway. The people’s representatives will have to hold off on holding that government to account, on getting the president of the republic and his ministers to answer their questions, questions they pose on our behalf, as mandated by the constitution. This State of the Nation Address (Sona), we must remind ourselves, is not meant to be mere pomp and ceremony, mere symbolic display of a functioning state.

Worse, the postponement of the address by the president of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was delayed because, we were told by the presiding officers of the two houses of Parliament, the political environment was not conducive to it proceeding. It was not that there had been an emergency of state, such as the sudden absence of the head of government, or some natural disaster which necessitated an emergency reprioritising of focus. 

Instead, it is something internal to the governing party, the African National Congress, which led to this rescheduling. The tensions and torsions inside the ANC leading up to and following on from its December 2017 elective conference lie at the heart of the current impasse. No statement of reassurance, no diary of engagements, can quell the suspicions and rumours. These are not the best of times, for either the party, or the 24-year old democratic dispensation in South Africa.

If this were a chess game, are we at a stalemate? Have we begun to see the decimation of pawns and knights, the board sparsely populated? Have the bishops been taken and are we now looking at two kings taking one-squared steps towards one another, taking out defences, threatening the rooks and remaining pawns? Can the kings be protected by queens, those powerful pieces, or have those been captured already as well?

Quo vadis, South Africa? Is this time of waiting limbo, where we, like Offred, can only anticipate what happens next, but can by no means be certain whether we will step up into the light or the dark?  Are we citizens reduced to mere handmaids, our service confined to the Miltonian waiting? It would be a terrifying abrogation of our democratic gains, where our politicians and their appointees in the state ought to be accountable to us, rather than merely leave us waiting. That’s not how constitutional democracy is supposed to work.

Or is it worse, are we not in limbo but in purgatory instead, some nightmare vision from Dante? If this is so, it cannot be guaranteed that our exit from this holding pattern, despite all the suffering here – think inequality, think unemployment, think misogynistic violence, think corruption – will be into a new utopia. We once made the transition from dystopia, that colonial and apartheid nightmare which we ended formally just under a quarter of a century ago, into what we thought was the beginning of the good times, utopia’s democratic freedom. Now, one president (of a party) informs us that he is in fruitful and constructive talks with another president (of the country) for a speedy solution to the current impasse. But we must remember, some fruit are not just bitter; some are poisonous. And some constructions are unstable, if not downright irresponsible. We need answers, and soon, on what those fruits are, and what the constructions are. It is our right.

Answers, clarity, transparency. They owe us this, those humble servants of the people. Now is the time.