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Monday, February 16, 2015

Entering a broken house: what now?

When President Jacob Zuma returns to the National Assembly tomorrow afternoon for a two-day debate about his State of the Nation Address, he will enter a broken house.
Hopefully he will not display indifference, as he did when he giggled on Thursday night after the chaos in the house that delayed his speech by an hour. The powers that be that night played a sinister hand. Their actions left a few MPs injured, #SONA2015 trending globally, many South Africans feeling heartbroken and accusations flying that our 20-year-old democracy was resorting to police state tactics.
Thursday night could have turned out differently if the signal had not been scrambled, if security officers – dressed in white shirts like waiters - had not been ordered in to remove persistent EFF MPs, if the Speaker had not ignored MPs questions on the identity of these shady officers and if Zuma had swallowed his pride and taken a quick question on Nkandla.   
In the protracted build-up to last Thursday, I initially felt some sympathy for Madam Speaker Baleka Mbete. She is tasked with maintaining order and decorum in the house. EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema and his fiery red army are in parliament not to be polite. They are agitators and disrupters, intent on challenging the rules of the house.
Although Mbete has been accused of shielding the president at previous sittings and he has a lot to answer for, SONA was not the time to be the anarchic Joker in the house. This was an annual occasion to address serious challenges in the country. It was one which traditionally has been viewed as a rather “festive, fun and lovely” affair, as journalist Katy Katopodis tweeted nostalgically the morning after.
In the days leading up to the big night, the extraordinary security strategy took shape - in secret. In three separate media briefings, presiding officers scrambled to find words when asked about security arrangements. In particular, when pesky journalists persisted with a straight-forward query - whether or not the Public Order Policing unit (the riot police which removed EFF MP Reneilwe Mashabela on 13 November) would be deployed, parliamentary officials dodged the yes-or-no question.
Then, two hours before Zuma took the podium on Thursday, journalists got their backs up when they discovered that the communication signal had been scrambled, apparently with a jamming device. What followed was a major distraction with pleas and protest - and some reporters tweeting and filing updates from the digitally-enabled toilets.
It was heart-breaking to see efforts by respected parliamentary staff members to intervene come to nothing. Powerless to get the line unscrambled, they looked uncomfortable as they fielded complaints from the media. It was disheartening that objections to the jamming came from opposition benches, not the ANC, a party which had authored the constitution that trumpets the free flow of information. What then transpired after 7pm – with the signal unjammed - has been relayed around the world. It was an hour of mayhem that shamed South Africa.
This week Madam Speaker faces what seems to be a losing battle to pick up the pieces and bring order to the house. There is a backlash from the opposition, calls for her removal and multiple legal steps being taken against creeping censorship and heavy-handed security measures in parliament.
 Tomorrow MPs should be debating serious economic, political and social challenges in the country, some of which Zuma touched on in his speech on Thursday. But these issues have taken a backseat in the dysfunctional house. And South Africans will clear their diaries to watch the show.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

New year's resolutions to whites catches my eye

Fatigued by the shrill, predictable noise that has been ricocheting off the congested social media space this month, a Facebook post from my son’s Afrikaans teacher, still caught my jaded eye.
 “Can all my white friends please read this,” she appealed, linking to a post from a blogger, Sifiso Mazibuko, in which he offered some New Year’s resolutions for white South Africans. Unlike the disturbing rants from both sides of the seemingly widening racial divide, Mazibuko’s tone was gentle and conciliatory. Committed to a united country, it was a heart-felt wish for South Africans to not retreat but to reach out to each other. (click to the link to the article here)
He said there was a tendency for whites to believe that after 1994, we “were all automatically made equal” so we should put the past behind us. But it was easier for those who had not been the victims of discrimination to move on. It was his view that blacks had “come to the party”, that forgiveness and reconciliation had largely been one-sided.  The Springboks were adopted, Die Stem was melded into the national anthem, the National Party was included in government and perpetrators of violent atrocities given amnesty under the TRC.
Twenty years into democracy, Mazibuko’s 2015 resolutions are simple. Whites could: learn an indigenous language to connect with the “culture and the heart of the person”; support a PSL soccer team; stop telling black people to “just get over it”; and be empathetic, making an effort to acknowledge the pain of the past. “Then we can figure out a way forward together,” he said, ending with: “Ons vir jou Suid Afrika”.
Unlike so many posts that drive a wedge instead of building bridges, Mazibuko’s thoughtful piece, which tried to make sense of the growing frustration among black South Africans, did not trigger a finger-pointing exercise. What it did was get people to think about how much we have done to genuinely learn about cultures other than our own, and how much transformation had taken place within our own lives.
I discussed it with my family at the dinner table. Even though I was among the ’80s generation inspired by the struggle for a non-racial South Africa, I now risked becoming complacent. I was retreating into my comfort zone, not making an effort to cross barriers. I had always been outspoken about racist comments from white suburbia, but I now caught myself slipping towards passive protest: ignoring it but lamely moving away.
As a typical lazy English-speaking South African, I had only made a feeble attempt to learn more than a few phrases of Xhosa. I could get away with it. Everybody else was taking the trouble to master my home language.
But now, were my children at risk of also growing up where the conversation would stop shortly after introductory greetings?
These thoughts had bubbled up after my daughter Ella, who was about to start high school, had told me she was going to switch her second additional language choice from Xhosa to French. “Xhosa is so hard,” she said, after I asked why. I had given in to her, not wanting to force my will on her.
But In the car on her first day of school last week, I had a 15-minute window.  I reminded her of our dinner table conversation, where we resolved together to make more effort. Xhosa would enrich her life. Ella was silent. Just before we reached the school, she said, “Okay mom, I will stick with Xhosa.” And off she went.
If forcing one’s own agenda is bad parenting and Ella resents me later, I won’t resort to the South African blame game. I won’t point a finger at Mazibuko. But if Ella thanks me later, I will extend my gratitude to him.