Indeed, manners maketh the man, but what happens when the man who insists on being treated as a highly-respected elder uses his position to steal millions of dollars of public money to redecorate his private home? Maybe being a conscientious people with good manners is what is causing the downfall of Africa.
The immediate reaction to the Economic Freedom Fighters’ recent (some would say successful) attempt to filibuster President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address amongst those with whom I was watching, was one of growing disquiet. I will admit to a measure of discomfort myself about what was a new phenomenon. On a continent where manners and appearances are everything, where elders acquire authority and respectability simply by virtue of ageing, it was shocking. Then it became clear the EFF were not simply out of control; it was a well orchestrated protest against the corruption that has hobbled not just the Republic of South Africa, but nearly all of independent Africa. Specifically the EFF were protesting against the Nkandla scandal arising from the refurbishment of the President’s private estate.
The EFF, fresh from petitioning the Constitutional Court to compel Zuma to defer to the Public Protector and repay state funds spent on embellishing his private estate with an amphitheatre, swimming pool, football pitch, gym and other amenities, was in combative mood. Combative and yet cautious. Each of their interventions began with appeals to the Speaker of the House, ‘Madam Chair’, or the less formal ‘Chair’ and even ‘Mama’ and were backed up with references to the House Rules and the Constitution.
They rose on points of order and points of privilege before proceeding to argue that Zuma’s speech had not touched on an allegedly missing $500 billion or the wider issue of Zuma’s legitimacy as President of South Africa in the light of it, but rather dwelt on distant history of the struggle against apartheid; Sharpville, Hector Peterson and Soweto, the Guguletu 7 and so on. Zuma had then gone on to introduce the luminaries of the struggle. Each stiffly rose to accept muted applause from a doggedly decorous House, totally belying the chaos outside the House where riot police battled EFF and other anti-corruption demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. These same delegates and the diplomatic corps invited as observers had earlier been photographed arriving on a red carpet. Gert-Johann Coetzee who dressed the Public Protector was even interviewed and declared they belonged in Hollywood.
But the EFF were not impressed by the pomp and circumstance. All attempts by the Speaker, and then when she became too incensed to speak, her deputy, to silence them were met by citations of the Rules of the House. Several times, the Speaker ‘prevailed’ on EFF leader Julius Malema to leave the House only to abandon the attempts as Malema read her the relevant rule. Other EFF members followed suit, at intervals rising on points of order, calling President Zuma’s integrity into question, and resuming their seats when threatened with ejection
In comparison, Mmusi Maimane, the new, youthful leader of the Democratic Alliance, also a party to the Constitutional Court petition, gave a subdued performance demanding that the Speaker proceed with the business of the day. His powder blue designer suit contrasted sharply with the red workmen’s overalls worn by EFF members.
Jacob Zuma was finally invited to speak but was only able to read two pages of his speech before the interruptions began again. The Speaker was forced to ask him to concede the floor to increasingly irate members of the EFF. ‘Yes, sit down Zupta!’ barked one, referring to the President by a nickname linking him to the powerful Gupta family, believed to have an unhealthily close relationship with the President.
It was the Deputy Speaker who was finally able unequivocally to order EFF members out. They went for broke, Malema shouting that President Zuma had lost legitimacy as national leader and no longer deserved respect. ‘Zupta must fall, Zupta must fall!’ they chanted as they left of their own volition (outnumbering the two men in black suits who appeared amongst them seemingly to remove them.) In his response to the SONA debate two days later, President Zuma did not mention Nkandla, rather, he lectured the House on the necessity of good manners during debates, alluding to his age and that of the presiding chairman.
The incident highlighted what may be the answer to the oft-asked question: What is Africa’s problem? The EFF are loud, yes, they shout in the presence of elders and point their fingers at them. They do not sit when asked to sit and remain in the room long after they have been asked to leave. And that is when it dawned on me: Africa’s problem is that we do not have enough people capable of the EFF’s approach to matters of life and premature death.
Take Uganda, a country in which 16 women a day die in childbirth, where hospitals when built often remain understaffed and without drugs, where the President of the republic lent his daughter his official aircraft to have her own child in Germany, unashamedly explaining the inadequacy of locally available maternity care and pupils enrolled in the universal primary education drop out at a rate of close to 70%. Of those pupils who stay on, a large percentage demonstrates only limited literacy and numeracy. The barriers to education can all be traced back to incompetence, corruption and the resultant poverty.
Yet when called upon to alter the Constitution to enable the President to run for a third term in office, most Ugandan members of parliament accepted cash payments in return for their votes. The facts became public only because Odonga Otto, who entered Parliament at age 23 and whose deportment, like Malema’s, has in the past been criticized, rejected the payment and went to the media. With his usual lack of delicacy he recounted how Yellow Girl, (a government minister who is usually seen about in the party colour) sat under a table at a privately-owned apartment complex counting out parcels of UShs 5 million (US$1,465 in today’s money and considerably more a decade ago) before reaching up to place them on the table-top, where the MPs received and signed for them.
Once corruption reaches those levels, Parliament becomes ineffectual either as a check on executive power or as a policy-making body. The alternative during the State of the Nation address, was for the House to insist the President make a statement on the Nkandla scandal and corruption in general. In the absence of such statesmanlike initiatives, the politically-minded remain with only three options; capitulation to state capture by corrupt politicians, interventions in the EFF style or forceful removal of the government. Julius Malema and the EFF have demonstrated that armed resistance and long bloody bush wars are unnecessary; all Africans need to do is to endure a little discomfort and free themselves from unhelpful traditions, beginning with blind, unquestioning deference to corrupt Elders.
* Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer.
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