Bheki Cele’s comments marked a low point in Tuesday’s six-hour debate. Photo by Jaco Marais

By Marianne Merten

ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina opened the State of the Nation Address (Sona) debate, saying the
governing party would “debunk falsehoods [of] some politicians and media that this President and government [have] not done anything”. The ANC would not grandstand and abuse the debate, unlike others in the House, she said. But the turn to gutter politics did come from the ANC. Police Minister Bheki Cele was in pursuit of potshots at DA leader John Steenhuisen, who had described the opposition party as “the only game in town”, come the 2024 elections to pull South Africa out of the crisis. “I want to make a clarion call today, especially to DA women, that as we see these problems of gender-based violence… they could not have allowed their leader to make the statement about his ex-wife; he called her a flat chicken, he called her a roadkill,” said Cele in reference to Steenhuisen’s deeply inappropriate comments in an August 2022 interview. And a little later, while calling on all South Africans to work together against GBV, Cele returned to his fellow KwaZulu-Natalian.
“The invitation also goes to Honourable Steenhuisen. We want to hear you apologise… to use a young woman, who came to work in your office and who was the wife of your colleague, and you took that wife of your colleague, and you divorce your own wife. You took that young girl; she is your wife today. But the women around you are quiet. So, you better go and fix yourself. If not, we will help you.”

Point of order

The DA leader was let down by his own side. Instead, EFF leader Julius Malema brought a point of order on Cele’s tactics. “We really cannot allow a situation where the minister drags [down] a wife of the leader of the opposition when she is not here. We should not be using women to fight our political battles here,” said Malema. “That is woman abuse what [Cele] did to her.”
At the end of the day’s debate, the presiding officer, National Council of Provinces Chairperson Amos Masondo, said Cele had sent a note to say he’d like to withdraw his comment, followed by him actually saying: “I withdraw” in the House. Cele’s comments marked a low point in Tuesday’s six-hour debate.

The curious bits came from Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who went off his prepared speech, saying: “Honourable Malema, you opted out of the Sona. In a country where a prime minister was assassinated in a House of Parliament, they [the EFF] stormed the stage.” This was a clear reference to the 6 September 1966 murder of apartheid leader HF Verwoerd by parliamentary messenger Dimitri Tsafendas.

Mantashe reacted to an earlier EFF point about how President Cyril Ramaphosa himself had said he was not intimidated by them and thus no need had existed to call in armed security personnel at the 9 February Sona. An EFF motion of no confidence is loading against National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who on Tuesday stayed out of the Sona debate presiding officer’s chair.
But EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was quick off the mark with a point of order in response to Mantashe, who is also the ANC national chairperson.  “I know only of one prime minister that was assassinated — Verwoerd. I have been very suspicious of you being part of apartheid,” said Ndlozi.

Crossing the Rubicon

Perhaps it was all the talk of crossing the Rubicon, or Ramaphosa being unable to cross the Rubicon, from Steenhuisen that got politicians casting their minds back. While crossing the Rubicon is a reference to a decision made by Julius Caesar and indicates reaching a point of no return, in South Africa, it has taken on a specific political meaning — the 15 August 1985 speech of then President PW Botha. In that speech, Botha, dubbed the Groot Krokodil, talked of having crossed the Rubicon when in fact he failed to make the widely anticipated announcement of fundamental reforms and the abolition of apartheid. 
On Valentine’s Day 2023, Steenhuisen put Ramaphosa into the same spot.
“It’s time to cross the Rubicon and embrace the opposite of socialism, which is power to the people.
So, last Thursday, we looked to you, our President. We asked you to show us the way across the river… President Cyril Ramaphosa could not cross the Rubicon,” said Steenhuisen.
“Instead of leading us across the Rubicon at the Sona of 2023, Mr Ramaphosa told us to turn around.
To stay on this side of the riverbank. To double down on the same failed ANC approach of state control that created the crisis in the first place.”  It was only the DA that would be able to change things, said Steenhuisen. “By making the right choice in 2024, voters can bring this same DA difference at a national level.

And let’s be clear about one thing: the DA is the only game in town for anyone who really wants to cross the Rubicon and save South Africa.” It was too good to ignore for Good party MP Brett Heron, who quipped how the DA itself failed to cross the river, “still standing where PW Botha left them”, in another curious apartheid reference, given that the DA did not exist then.
In Tuesday’s debate, it became apparent that both Steenhuisen and Malema had hit home in the ANC benches — in different ways, and garnering different responses which signal how the governing party is likely to handle its electioneering.  Malema got the most points of order, parliamentary moves to disrupt a speaker. These were all from the ANC, which at least twice unsuccessfully questioned the EFF’s participation in the debate following their disruption of last Thursday’s Sona. 
But it didn’t stop Malema. Not expressly mentioning the 2024 elections — the EFF’s planned “national shutdown” on 20 March was the focus, drawing clenched fists from EFF MPs — he nevertheless rubbished the Ramaphosa presidency.  “What you were listening to was not a real Sona. It is hearsay. Our country is in the midst of [a] man-made crisis…[Ramaphosa] is a full-time businessman, an animal trader, who has said the president job is a part-time job.”  Crucially, Malema rammed home the EFF’s 10th anniversary, and how its public safety and health portfolios would be delivery showcases. 

It was an important point to make, given the EFF’s lack of service delivery track record, which the DA traditionally makes much of.  As South Africa’s largest opposition, the DA has governed the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town for well over 10 years. It’s part of the DA’s playbook.  And that’s what the ANC on Tuesday moved to put down — from raising questions about the DA-led Tshwane coalition and ex-DA Joburg mayor Mpho Phalatse, to calling the DA racist. 
As the minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, who followed Steenhuisen on the speakers’ list, put it in his off-script remarks: “The point is, Western Cape is a test of [the] resilience of racial exclusion. In 2024, our people are very clear about facts. They know [a] DA future is based on a racially exclusive future.”

Where the DA governed, “the Group Areas Act of governing has been effectively restored”, Deputy Higher Education Minister Buti Manamela followed suit as ANC sweeper closing Day One of the Sona debate.
“I hear echoes of PW Botha in 1985 when John, Honourable Steenhuisen here, spoke of crossing the Rubicon. And yes, the DA should cross the Rubicon because the DA is not the home of black or women leaders because they are not compliant. Ask Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mbali Ntuli and Phumzile Van Damme,” said Manamela. The 2024 general election may be 12 to 18 months away, but the electioneering is in full swing. –

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