State of Indifference

Feb 10, 12 State of Indifference

As I type this President Zuma is delivering his state of the nation address (SONA), and many South Africans enter into the hours-long pageantry of a time-honoured tradition held within Parliament. TV stations will follow the parade of fully-plumed dignitaries waddling up the steps to their respective seats, where they can spend the next few hours maintaining a ghastly picture of barely-cognisant interest at the President’s droning. It is a tradition that has been followed for years in South Africa, and sees our prominent public intellectuals creeping out of their holes for the requisite 15 minutes of talk time with one show or another’s host, like jackals slinking about a wounded antelope. All fun and games. Except the SONA is utterly irrelevant beyond this week, and this entire farce is nothing more than a shining example of everything wrong with this country.

When was the last time anything said by the President during the SONA was carried on in any honest sense of accountability? Simply put, the address serves nothing more than for a public act where all must play their roles, and the curtains close a few days later after the opposition parties have had their roasting in their retaliatory speeches of rivaling pointlessness, and the public forget this ever happened. For now, we tweet with #SONA hashtags about the President’s points and examples highlighted, we titter and giggle at the MP’s who fall asleep in their lavish robes (gained in part from their multi-million rand salaries) and we laugh at the simple-yet-ridiculous mannerisms of the President while he gives his two cents on the nation.

It’s pointless because it’s utterly temporary. The President’s address does no more to alter the perceptions or understanding of this country’s affairs than the dull-eyed simpletons who comment on it on SABC or E-TV. It is all a ridiculous pantomime conducted for the purely-indulgent post-match armchair analysis fit for Bryce Lawrence’s rugby matches and ammunition for small talk in the days to come. But who can honestly remember what happened in last year’s SONA, or the year before that? We can’t because it simply does not matter. The truly pertinent speeches occur not on this elaborate annual stage set up by the shackles of tradition and media interest, but when a true crisis or challenge emerges, and the country’s leader really shows a reaction – for good or ill – that resonates throughout the country. What we see here is simply spaghetti western hashouts of the same routine we’ve seen before.

The problem is also with South Africans as a whole. There is often a prevailing sentiment that the President will show some sort of uncharacteristic flash of brilliance; where his leadership and oratory genius will give us some cause for optimism in a political sphere mired in bullshit and scandal. We want to be entertained, and therein lies the problem. Because the SONA has become less of a reflection on what this country has achieved in the past year and more of an hours-long French aristocratic-styled ball, where both onlookers and nobility play out a ridiculous joke which we must take for politics. When all the while the guillotines are being sharpened by the masses of poor and unemployed who no longer find the hashtags and status updates very witty.