Pieter du Toit: Barricades, Alsatians and fences – SONA shows up a party and government afraid of its people

The State of the Nation Address (SONA) has become a fashion parade for the political and captured elite, smilingly strutting on a red carpet while answering banal questions about haute couture, writes Pieter du Toit.

The SONA used to be delivered in the day, during a normal joint session of Parliament in the afternoon. During the Presidency of Jacob Zuma it was moved to the evening to enable more people to watch it.

But during Zuma's term, many more changes were made to the ceremony and format which had become established during the terms of office of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. For one thing, the red carpet and fashion stakes became increasingly banal.

The most important change under the presidency of Zuma (and the speakership of Baleka Mbete) however, has been the securitisation of the opening of Parliament. During the early afternoon on Thursday, just after lunchtime, the Cape Town city centre was in absolute lockdown. Businesses were closed, some council cleaners were scurrying way, and homeless people sat forlornly on deserted streets.

The precinct around the parliamentary grounds was barricaded behind a maze of high fences, like something out of a Cold War-era movie, depicting the divide between East and West Berlin. Streets were empty, save some police armoured vehicles and grim-faced policemen patrolling the no-man's land leading towards the democratic Parliament.

Side alleys, just off from the main arteries leading to Parliament and Plein streets, the main avenues to Parliament, were amputated by enormous concrete barriers, the type you see on television at roadblocks in Gaza or Aleppo.

SONA barricade (Photo: Pieter du Toit)

The eerie silence in the streets was sometimes broken by the bark of a police Alsatian, reined in by its handler.

Once at Parliament you had to go through a series of checkpoints where suspicious police officers herded different categories of politicians, guests and journalists into different areas. And once you were on the parliamentary grounds, it was almost impossible to return if you had to leave for some reason.

Grim-faced policemen and parliamentary officials continually warned you where you're allowed to walk and where not, what you're allowed to do and what not and every so often, who you're allowed to speak to and who not. Journalists walking up to the deity that is a minister? Not during the opening of Parliament.

SONA barricade

SONA has become a fashion parade for the political and captured elite, smilingly strutting on a red carpet while answering banal questions about haute couture. It is an inaccessible and suspicious environment in which to work, with public representatives who are supposed to be accountable to the public being mollycoddled by a parliamentary authority who bowed to Zuma's every autocratic instinct.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's motorcade, that seemed impossibly long (how many cars? 20? 30?), drove slowly through the streets of Cape Town before he disembarked at the bottom of Parliament Street. He wouldn't have seen one single member of the public, cheering or otherwise. Cape Town was a ghost city.

The people's Parliament? Doesn't look that way, at all. 

- Pieter du Toit is News24 assistant-editor of in-depth news.