SONA 2019: From 'Thuma Mina' to 'New Dawn Fades' as Bosasa casts a shadow

The 2018 State of the Nation Address had the nation jiving to the jaunty jazz of Hugh Masekela's "Thuma Mina", and President Cyril Ramaphosa tried to reprise this at the 2019 edition, but the pall of the gloomy post-punk of Joy Division's "New Dawn Fades" was cast over the event instead.

The tension accompanying the last days of the Zuma-presidency was the precursor to 2018's unprecedented postponed SONA (postPONA), with then freshly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa releasing that tension with the promise of a new dawn when he delivered his first SONA.

The run-up to his second – and his last, if a rather hopeful DA leader Mmusi Maimane is to be believed – had a shadow cast over it: devastating allegations of graft involving several ministers and members of his party and a company – Bosasa – who gave R500 000 to his campaign to become president of the ANC. This, after a year in which the economy wasn't kickstarted, not enough jobs were created and racial tension simmered.

In the weeks preceding the SONA, EFF leader Julius Malema warned that Ramaphosa would face the Zuma-treatment if he didn't come clean on his dealings with Bosasa.

It was thus somewhat foreboding when the EFF came into the chamber singing on Thursday evening, if unsurprising. They have always come in singing as a group in their red outfits. 

Other MPs entered in drips and drabs. ACDP MP Cheryllyn Dudley was the first to enter the chamber, cutting a lone figure at around 17:00, seeking refuge from the heat in the chamber's air conditioning.

As the other MPs entered, some posed with comrades for selfies, while others crossed the aisle for some inter-party caucuses. Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom had a long chat with the IFP's Narend Singh, while IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa had an animated conversation with Police Minister Bheki Cele, who sported his trademark Fedora.

The EFF continued singing and dancing by themselves, Nkagisang Koni wearing sunglasses and Tebogo Mokwele a black T-shirt which read: "Our land and jobs now."

Nobody answered or joined in, or paid them particular mind – a bit like when that guy at a party picks up a guitar and starts playing "Wonderwall".

As the processions entered the chamber, the EFF continued singing and dancing, while the ANC applauded (the processions, not the EFF's entertainment).

At the back of the procession of premiers was acting Western Cape premier Alan Winde, who also happens to be the DA's premier candidate for the Western Cape in the upcoming elections. He gave a little side hug to Cape Town mayoral committee member Xanthea Limberg, who attended proceedings as part the SA Local Government (SALGA) delegation. As Winde took his seat, DA MPs stood up and applauded loudly.

The EFF continued to ignore the processions, until the judiciary entered, led by Deputy Judge President Judge Raymond Zondo – who also happens to be the chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture. Like everyone else, the EFF applauded the judges and continued a little while after everybody else stopped clapping and took their seats.

As the procession with Ramaphosa entered, everybody except the EFF and FF Plus stood up. The DA rose rather gingerly.

When Ramaphosa was called to the podium, only the ANC benches rose, in contrast to the year before when the whole chamber rose.

Ramaphosa greeted the dignitaries, and Malema jumped up and applauded when he greeted former president Kgalema Motlanthe. The loudest cheer, perhaps, was reserved for Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis, who was seated in the Presidential box next to new National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi. 

Also in the presidential box was Dennis George, suspended general secretary of the Federation of Unions of South Africa. One can only conclude that the invitations for the SONA were sent out before news of a probe into his acquisition of shares in AYO Technology Solutions broke.

Also in the public gallery, but not in the Presidential box, was Iqbal Survé, seated two rows behind the row where Motlanthe and former president Thabo Mbeki was seated.

After greeting the dignitaries, Ramaphosa announced that he first had to make a disclaimer.

"Bosasa?" enquired someone from the opposition benches.

Instead, he invoked the "Thuma Mina" vibes from last year's SONA, recalling how Malema said he should sing it when he quoted the song. He said he had a "chance meeting" with Malema the day before, and promised he would sing it if the EFF wins the election. Not only did he have a "chance meeting" with Malema, he also happened to have a "chance meeting" with DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and convinced him that they shall sing it together if the EFF wins.

Malema shook his head smilingly and averted his eyes to his phone. And, with the Thuma Mina Band's formation announced, Ramaphosa cut the little bit of tension in the chamber.

Ramaphosa got into his speech. 

"This year, as a diverse people and as a united nation, we will celebrate one of the greatest of human achievements…" he said.

Someone from the opposition interjected: "Bosasa!?"

Ramaphosa continued, unhindered. 

When he spoke about Batohi's appointment, she listened with apparent attentiveness and smiled when he said: "Watch this space!"

The inhabitants of the ANC benches all looked in the direction of the podium, hardly a cellphone or tablet in sight. Some opposition members had a glance at their cellphones every once in a while. 

After about a half hour there was the odd yawn in the public gallery and some eyelids in the diplomatic boxes seem to grow heavy. But for the most part, the diplomatic corps seemed to listen attentively. 

DA MPs groaned when Ramaphosa said Eskom came up with a nine-point turnaround plan. 

After about an hour into his speech, the MPs grew a little bit restless, and Speaker Baleka Mbete asked for order. This elicited a response from the EFF, and their chief whip Floyd Shivambu got up to mumble a point of order, but things settled down and Ramaphosa continued, with smatterings of applause from the ANC benches at the appropriate times.

Even when Ramaphosa spoke about land and expropriation without compensation, there was no reaction from the EFF.

"Bosasa!" cried some opposition members when Ramaphosa started speaking about the Zondo commission's work.

"We commend these commissions for the work they are doing, often under challenging circumstances, to uncover the truth," Ramaphosa said, to applause from the ANC benches, including Minister of Environmental Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane, who didn't have a Louis Vuitton handbag as part of her ensemble.    

"What about the R500 000?" blurted DA MP Ghaleb Kachalia, who was wearing a blue sash emblazoned with the words: "Not paid for by Bosasa." 

"Where there is a basis to prosecute, prosecutions must follow swiftly and stolen public funds must be recovered urgently," Ramaphosa said to enthusiastic applause from the ANC benches, including Mokonyane and Gwede Mantahse.

Malema got up for a point of order, saying deputy minister Thabang Makwetla shouldn't be applauding.

"Scorpions!" cried DA MPs when Ramaphosa announced that an investigating directorate will be established in the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions. From the press gallery, it is impossible to see the expression on the face of Mbeki, under whose watch the original Scorpions was disbanded.

"Whaaaaa!" the DA laughed when Ramaphosa said the National School of Government will introduce compulsory courses covering ethics and anti-corruption.

"Bring it on!" someone from the DA benches, possibly chief whip John Steenhuisen, shouted when Ramaphosa announced the date – May 8 – for the upcoming elections. 

The EFF MPs started rolling their arms in the substitution gesture. 

"Order!" chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Thandi Modise said sharply.  And order resumed.

When Ramaphosa started speaking about issues of race, tolerance and democracy, he slowed down the pace with which he delivered his words, his voice more solemn, more deliberate.

"Our society is anchored in the roots of tolerance and co-existence, and we stand firm, resolute and united against all and everything that seeks to divide us or destroy our hard-won gains," said Ramaphosa.

"Yes!" said Deputy Finance Minister Mondli Gungubele, smiling, clearly enamoured with what he was hearing, pointing in Ramaphosa's direction. After quoting former American president Theodore Roosevelt, first lady Tshepo Motsepe is seen in the presidential box mouthing "wow".

"Let us continue to embrace the spirit of citizen activism in line with the injunction, Thuma Mina, in the onward march towards equality, freedom and prosperity for all. I thank you," Ramaphosa concluded.

When he closed his first SONA, a little bit less than a year ago, the whole Parliament rose and applauded.

This time it was only the ANC benches. 

Like last year, the ANC broke into song calling on Ramaphosa to rise, as the time had come for unity. This year the singing wasn't as animated, as vociferous, as rousing.  There was also an addition to the song this year. Where the ANC sang "unity", EFF matriarch Mam'Khawula sang, over the microphone: "Agrizzi, Agrizzi…"