MORE than 14,000km, most of the Atlantic Ocean and a six-hour time difference separate Cape Town from Cleveland, Ohio. Yet, last Thursday, at more or less the same time, these two cities hosted versions of political theatre that drew large radio and TV ratings on the expectation that politics at its most intense and interesting is similar to a blood sport. Or a car wreck.
But on this basis alone, Parliament’s question time in Cape Town and the first Republican TV debate in Cleveland did not quite live up to expectations.
In Parliament, most of the interest fell on the provocation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the limits of Speaker Baleka Mbete’s endurance for their tactics of mayhem in the face of presidential stonewalling. EFF leader Julius Malema promised to goad President Jacob Zuma over Nkandla and possibly again rupture what remains of parliamentary decorum.
In the event, Mbete managed for once to channel her African National Congress partisanship. Using a combination of patience and displaying a more detailed understanding of the rules and the dexterous use of them, she wore out the EFF and allowed question time noisily to conclude without either cancellation or injury.
Of course, the ace in the hole for Mbete and Zuma was the fact that the other opposition parties have long since tired of Malema’s wrecking tactics. Opposition parties might be of one voice on the denial of accountability, the spurious misuse of security and the deep corruption embedded in Nkandla but, self-evidently, they have tired of their own sidelining from a debate hitherto drowned out by the one-note, raucous EFF chorus chant of, “Pay back the money!”. So instead of the ranks of MPs seated to the left of Zuma uniting against him, they united against the EFF.
The Republican debate in Cleveland drew a record 24-million viewers largely because of one man, the improbable leader of the Republican field, billionaire property mogul and business celebrity Donald Trump. In most senses, the blonde-coiffed, deeply politically incorrect Trump bears no resemblance to Malema. But like the EFF leader, he has perfected the power of disruption, the tactics of outrage and the ability to lob verbal grenades that often mirror widely held beliefs to stunning effect. In the two months since announcing his presidential bid, the former reality TV host has dwarfed far more credentialled rivals in a very crowded political field.
Rather like Malema’s somewhat lacklustre performance in Parliament last Thursday, Trump — the key drawcard in the debate — was pummelled by his interrogators and somewhat ignored by his rivals. He did not, by the admittedly wide latitude of his previous comments, say anything of extraordinary offensiveness.
However, it was in the post-debate spin sessions the next day that Trump overreached, perhaps fatally. He attacked one of the female debate moderators, and a darling of the conservative cause, Fox TV’s Megyn Kelly. Complaining about her tough questions to him in the debate, he offered this explanation: “You could see the blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Many, even among his previous adoring admirers, believed Trump was referring to her menstruating. His invitation to a conservative mega-convention the next day was promptly withdrawn.
Mbete is no Megyn Kelly. But by allowing the question time to proceed and enable Zuma to complete his answers, she inadvertently helped reveal a stunning vacuity at the heart of government and a gaping hole at the helm of the country.
Last Tuesday, this newspaper’s front page headlined the extraordinary decision of Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi to suspend the mining licence of Glencore’s Optimum Colliery. This major missile was aimed at an industry already on its knees, bleeding jobs and on the receiving end of crashing commodity prices, labour militancy and electricity blackouts. Zuma presides over a country that has $2.5-trillion in mineral wealth but has now fallen out of the top 50 mining countries in the world.
Yet, on Thursday, Zuma advised Parliament that he did not know of this industry-shaking event and had not received “a report from the minister”. But if the minister remains unchecked, we could see the mining industry here go the way of the woolly mammoth. Just like our ailing, ministerially decapitated tourism sector. Admittedly, Ramatlhodi “temporarily” withdrew the suspension the next day. But as sentiments drive markets and crash prices, we will be lucky if we don’t slide even further down the league tables.
Cape Talk radio news host John Maytham asked me how could it be that Tuesday’s announcement on Glencore had escaped Zuma’s attention. I was stumped for a suitable reply, except to offer one of two entirely negative possibilities: either Zuma is simply uninformed or he lacks the ability to offer candour to a country in the process of economic meltdown.
Zuma was even more unimpressive on his presumed area of competence — security — and an even bigger mushroom cloud detonated by his police minister’s inflammatory remarks on the judiciary. Once again, he said that “he would not react until he had the full circumstances surrounding the ministerial action”.
Here, far more than with spurious points of order, Malema nailed the situation accurately when he riposted about an event that occurred weeks ago: “It is so embarrassing. Your minister attacks the judiciary. You don’t know anything about it.”
The average citizen or taxpayer may legitimately ask at this point: what does Zuma do with his time and how does he account for his day? It is one thing attending meetings, presiding over state ceremonies, but that is not the leadership needed at a time of crisis.
And any doubt about the scale of the crisis and depth of the problems seemingly unaddressed by a blithely unaware head of state can be gleaned from an array of statistics that have perhaps crossed Zuma’s desk: the currency at a 14-year low, ditto for consumer and business confidence, private sector activity at a one-year low, our growth expectation “far less than the global average”, according to his finance minister.
Yet Zuma, in the same session, according to a News24 report, “painted a rosy picture of SA’s economy”.
Perhaps Nkandla is not just a metaphor for nonaccountability and profligacy. Maybe in a real sense it provides a bunker from reality. In which case, instead of bankrupting the country on a nuclear deal with the Russians, another tack is needed.
The US military announced recently that it had at its disposal a “massive ordinance provider” known as the bunker-buster bomb. Weighing up to 15 tonnes, it can “penetrate impenetrable caves, underground tunnels and the deepest bunkers”.
It is time to develop a political equivalent of this, perhaps, and detonate it locally.
• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA