South African model and businesswoman Babalwa Mneno at the State of the Nation Address on February 13, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa.. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Mmusi Maimane | SONA: Expensive circus should be replaced by televised speech from Union Buildings

The next president must cancel the costly process and rather resort to something more in line with the needs of the state. Namely a televised speech from the Union Buildings or at best an ordinary sitting of Parliament, writes Mmusi Maimane

Last night along with many South Africans, I for the first time in a number of years, watched SONA from the comfort of my own home.

It was a strange feeling watching from the terraces, knowing what the SONA is supposed to be and actually what it delivers. There is a gap between the hopes and dreams of the president and the actual state of the nation. 

The speech itself was predictable but I can’t help but reflect on the drama, that took place as a precursor to the main event. For some I have no doubt that the drama was the main event. 

It’s worth remembering that more than half of the citizens of this country are living below the upper poverty line, more than half our young people are unemployed and South Africa is in a crisis of SOE's, corruption, violent crime.

We are living in a period of economic and literal darkness.

Yet watching the proceedings you would have sworn that the economy was booming and that there was cause for cheer.

For the most part, the red carpet ceremony before the joust was about fashion.

The opening - both in symbol and substance - demonstrated how distant the Parliament is from the people.

It's an MP beauty pageant and we as South Africans watch in the same way as one would watch the Oscars, and like the award ceremony, genuinely of no consequence to our lives.

Unlike the Oscars where the nominees have cause to celebrate accomplishment, it can hardly be said that our Parliament has cause to celebrate.

Let alone spend millions to hear a 5 000 word speech. 

It's not just the politicians, it's the whole entourage that makes this an event.

Journalists flying down to Cape Town, media crews setting up production sites.

All in all, there are copious amounts of money spent to listen to a 5 000 word speech.

The next president must cancel the costly process and rather resort to something more in line with the needs of the state.

Namely a televised speech from the Union Buildings or at best an ordinary sitting of Parliament.

The drama kicked off with the request for De Klerk to be removed from the house and then for Pravin to be recalled from the position of Minister of Public Enterprises. 

Parliament is the people's parliament and it is meant to be a chamber for serious matters.

Watching at home the drama unfolding was no different to yet another soapie showing at the same time. 

All the parties were simply seeking to make their points for time on television.

I realised that indeed we were a nation in a state, a state of schadenfreude at our own demise.

Politicians could not find each other and build consensus to resolve issues without an agitation. 

It's no wonder citizens have lost patience with each other on the roads, in boardrooms and our local communities.

Yesterday, I sat and realised that when you are in the drama you lose perspective, but when you step away, you see what citizens see, an expensive and unproductive circus.

This was political point scoring and most commentators calling it masterful.

Yet the hungry and poor, were left reeling, no answers, just a theatrical parliament.

We have turned Parliament into a soccer match, a Soweto derby if you will.

Prime time TV but not an effective deliberative body for redress and progress. 

I will admit that I miss some things about the SONA, namely being able to engage with the speech, respond to it, but I certainly did not miss the hour delays and the conduct of MPs.

It was off-putting and exacerbates the anxiety that most citizens feel.

Watching this I would not blame citizens for believing that we are a country without vision, a plan, consensus and public representatives who work for us. 

The clincher came from Mr PR machine himself, the President.

Clearly a company has been hired to run the President's PR.

The script is that every image of the President must be of him smiling and looking Presidential, in the American style.

We are now becoming accustomed to briefings outside Air Force 1, or Inkwazi, images of a President in meetings but always smiling.

Yesterday was no different, his speech was delayed by an hour and half, Parliament was suspended and then the leader of the country was just smiling through it all.

The fact that he made no remark regarding the conduct preceding his address - like a father witnessing a fight at home, and making no comments about the conduct.

The silence made it seem like there is no fight left in the President. 

He was being told to sit down in a condescending manner by a parliamentary junior and he smiles away.

I have no problems with people who smile, but yesterday’s PR required a leader who would stand up and for the voiceless masses out there condemn the actions of MPs.

We required in that moment, not acquiescence but a President who could demonstrate grit and the tenacity to call disrespectful youngsters to order. 

We needed a demonstration of passion consistent with the message that the President is about the business of getting the country working again.

We need to see that he can manage being disrupted and come out on top.

He should have told those petulant youngsters that the SONA would be no different with or without Pravin, or Mr De Klerk; that it was his business to ensure the nation is working and gets to work.

He smiled and pretended nothing had just happened.

That must have frustrating for all of us to see. 

Unfortunately this is the presidency I have now come to expect, he was silent when Zuma looted and he was deputy president; he was silent during the looting of state enterprises and he is now silent when the same are sitting in Parliament with him.

He certainly has enough images of cutting cake with the very same people who destroyed our nation. 

We don't need a smiling president.

We need a somber and serious leader who understands that there is a crisis.

We send our kids to school with school bags and they return in body bags.

They cross rivers to get to school and some simply have been stripped of their dignity.

They face guns, knives and abusers in the classrooms.

We need a president who gets that.

Not one who sells us the talking points from the Department of Education. A department we all know is under-performing. 

This is the pain of living in this South Africa and whilst I don't want to be a prophet of doom, I would certainly want a President who acts, talks and realises how high the stakes are.

It's no longer the ANC's loss, it is all of our loss.

We are no longer on a question of whose side of the boat is leaking, we are all drowning. 

I have been traveling in South Africa, establishing the movement for one South Africa.

Our county is in crisis.

We are facing a tough days ahead nd our economy needs business rescue.

The speech gave no details on SAA, repeated information on Eskom and no other SOE’s.

Most people are living in fear of crime and yet no real reform of policing except to say that more would be deployed.

We must take action, SAA needs an equity partner and be sold off.

I do welcome the IPP plan but we must build an aggressive model of opening the grid to sustainable energy.

The Eskom horse has bolted, and now is time to allow energy generation at a large scale to power up Africa.

There were no genuine reforms from the President on education and I truly do welcome the introduction of robotics and coding but we cannot cite the pass rate as a success.

It hides the truth that we have to confront about our education, our children are passing at 30% and most are dropping out of school, even fewer are taking Maths and Science. 

I was saddened yesterday by the developments.

It was a SONA to remember and painfully for the wrong reasons.

You may support any of the parties in the Parliament yesterday, I certainly don't.

Our people yesterday were left in the dark, exposed to theatrics and for the most part in fear of tomorrow.