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Bang, whimper, fizzle: Presidential Question Time

Between the Ides of March and St Patrick’s Day, South African politics has certainly been eventful. Between the revelations on social media...

Between the Ides of March and St Patrick’s Day, South African politics has certainly been eventful. Between the revelations on social media, the denials inviting cock-crowing, the 9-point affirmations and their rebuttals, and the threats of litigation, it has been a busy week.

 There was the announcement by a deputy minister that he had been offered a ministerial position by an immigrant family who have close links to the head of state. A former leader of the governing party’s parliamentary caucus found herself forgotten altogether by the man who was deputy president during her tenure, and now leads the government. Other senior members of the governing party National Executive Committee have indicated they knew nothing about the redeployment in the cabinet last December. And then the man himself, the President of the Republic, was scheduled to spend a Thursday afternoon answering questions submitted earlier.

The most confrontational question, submitted by the relative new arrivals in parliament, the Economic Freedom Fighters, was withdrawn. It requested clarity on consultation and instruction around cabinet appointments. Withdrawing the question was no doubt strategic, as the EFF has indicated they do not grant Mr Zuma any legitimacy as president of the country. Whether this was a politically productive move only time will reveal.

The official opposition proceeded to confront the President with a demand that he account. In his now standard approach, Mr Zuma gave a response instead of an answer. Dissatisfied with the deflection, and insisting on their right to be answered, the Speaker of the House asked the leader of the opposition, Mr Maimane, to leave the house. His colleagues walked out with him. This was probably bad political chess. It is, after all, only a day before the Constitutional Court will return with a finding on her right to call police into Parliament. She could not have come across as more protective of the man who was, after all, meant to be there to account for his and his government’s actions.
President Jacob Zuma in Parliament
With empty benches for the governing party – several key figures missing, reputedly including the Minister of Finance and his deputy – the entire exercise felt hollowed out of its significance. The significance was not diminished because the carnivalesque performances of post-2014 parliamentary meetings were missing. It was not even a flattened proceeding because the two largest opposition parties were absent from the chamber for the larger part of the afternoon.

If South Africans had grown used to the bang of parliamentary confrontations, they were not even being given a whimper. The Q&A session fizzled: between the deflections – ask the Guptas, ask the deputy minister himself, do not ask the man whose job was supposedly claimed as theirs by the president’s associates, according to members of his cabinet – and the responses standing in for answers, it is hard to imagine the word ‘accountability’ less applicable to the bathos in the National Assembly.

The President, and the party which deployed him to that position, and the Speaker who runs the proceedings in the National Assembly, ought perhaps to be reminded of that awful afternoon in February, when the Constitutional Court judges listened to the most spectacular public capitulation by legal representatives for government actors on the ‘Nkandla’ question. The issue central to that afternoon was not only whether Mr Zuma, as president, ought to follow the recommendations of the Public Protector of the Republic of South Africa and repay some portion of the costs of the Nkandla project. At issue was also whether the National Assembly had performed its Constitutional duty to hold the Executive arm of government to account on Nkandla.
The fizzle which was the President of the Republic not accounting to the people’s elected representatives with answers rather than responses felt like a symptom of the state of things in the Republic. With the question session behind him, and as he heads into the weekend’s governing party pow-wow, he and all members of the NEC ought perhaps to reflect on the reasons why ‘accountability’ was made part of the post-apartheid government structure, and why and how it was meant to serve the people of the country, not the power of a party, or the desire of an individual.

Questions require answers, fully and frankly, honestly and openly. Explanations must trump evasions. It is too soon for South Africans to settle for the sales pitch and spin over the substantial and (self)revealing answer. If for no other reason, then for the sustained exceptionalism that continues to blight the South African sense of itself on the continent. If ever a negative needed to be spun into a positive, our exceptionalism could perhaps serve some purpose other than xenophobia.

We must continue to ask, and force elected officials to answer fully and thoroughly. It is not enough to tell us that there were reasons, and they were reasons of government. Those are not answers; those are responses, and they are woefully inadequate to our need to understand the events since December 2015, or the events between the Ides of March and St Patrick’s Day. Any other scenario is to have the bang of democracy’s attainment in 1994 whimper and fizzle out all too soon, and in our lifetime.

We count. Our politicians must account, to us, before they do to anyone else, whether these are corporations, moneyed individuals, rating agencies, or supranational organisations. We are, after all, the people.