In a tumultuous State of the Nation (Sona) event, Parliament descended into chaos, as EFF Members of Parliament were forcibly removed from the National Assembly, the DA staged a walkout and President Jacob Zuma was left to address the mainly ANC benches on critical issues facing the country.
The President’s address to the nation was delayed by a full hour. The sitting got off to a disastrous start when MPs were outraged at a clampdown on freedom of speech, after cellphone signals were seemingly deliberately scrambled in the Parliamentary precinct.
Faced with sound and technical problems, due in part to hundreds of Parliamentary staff going on strike to protest for a thirteenth cheque, Zuma finally got going, only to be stopped a couple of minutes into his speech by the EFF.
EFF leader, Julius Malema and his fellow party MPs insisted that the president tell the House how he was going to ‘pay back the money’ for security upgrades to his Nkandla homestead. After refusing to leave the house, the EFF was escorted out. When the DA could not get answers as to whether armed police had ejected Malema from the house, its entire contingent walked out.
As expected, the energy crisis was a central feature of the president’s address.
He told Parliament that overcoming serious energy constraints was uppermost in the government’s programme. He urged individuals, households, industries and government departments to save electricity to reduce the need for load shedding.
“Energy constraints are an impediment to economic growth and a major inconvenience to everyone in the country. We are doing everything we can to resolve the energy challenge.”
Zuma said government would honour its commitment to give Eskom R23 billion in the next fiscal year to help stabilise its finances.
Given the high cost of diesel, the president said Eskom had been told to switch from diesel to gas as a source of energy for the utility’s generators. He encouraged households to switch from electricity to gas as well.
Zuma said the ‘War Room’ set up by Cabinet in December was working around the clock with Eskom to contain load shedding.
On plans for nuclear, Zuma said the government was exploring the procurement of the 9 600 megawatt nuclear build programme. It had signed inter-governmental agreements, while five countries – the US, South Korea, Russia, France and China – had presented their proposals on nuclear. Zuma promised a fair, transparent and competitive procurement process.
On land ownership, Zuma said the government would set a ceiling of a maximum of 12 000 hectares on land ownership. Rights for people who live and work on farms will be introduced, while a new Property Valuation Act will stop the reliance on the Willing Buyer-Willing Seller method.
Zuma announced that foreign nationals would not be allowed to own land in South Africa, although they would be eligible for long-term leases. He also shared a nine-point plan aimed at igniting growth and creating jobs.
2015 will also be the year to further promote the rights of workers.
The state of South Africa’s fragile economy made up a large slice of the president’s address. He said South Africa’s goal of achieving a growth target of 5% by 2019 was ‘at risk’ because of slow global growth and domestic constraints, including energy.
“Our economy needs a major push forward,” Zuma said while outlining his nine- point plan for boosting the economy.
Resolving the energy challenge came in at number one on the list.
Revitalising agriculture, advancing beneficiation of minerals, encouraging private sector investment and moderating workplace conflict were among the nine points.
R2 billion will be set aside for agri-parks in the country’s 27 poorest district municipalities, while 133 informal settlements will be upgraded in and around distressed mining towns.
Zuma also homed in on the spiraling protests in South Africa. He said police had successfully brought under control 13 575 recorded public order incidents, of which nearly 2 000 had been rocked by unrest.
Memorable for the wrong reasons
This year’s Sona will be remembered for the strictest security Parliament has ever imposed as well as unprecedented disruptions.
It also sparked division among the opposition parties, with COPE’s Mosiuoa Lekota and the UDM’s Bantu Holomisa, angered by the way the EFF had been treated, while IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi called the uproar in the House ‘disgusting’ and said the country was being ‘torn apart by a few people indulging in theatrics’.
The government has slammed the EFF conduct as ‘shameful and despicable’.
African Christian Democratic Party leader, Kenneth Meshoe, said he had been ‘uninspired’ by the president’s speech.
“I almost fell asleep for the first time. I had to go out to get fresh air.”
The usual focus on Sona fashion was toned down. DA members protested by wearing black and avoiding the red carpet. The traditional post-Sona gala dinner was scaled down to a cocktail party which was boycotted by several opposition parties.