There is a remarkable shift happening in our parliamentary politics. The governing African National Congress (ANC), in power for almost 23 years and returned to government five consecutive times, looks beaten, tired and insipid.
During the first day of the debate on President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Tuesday, the governing party seemed a defeated organisation, lacklustre and unwilling to defend its leader from relentless attacks by the Leader of the Opposition, Mmusi Maimane (Democratic Alliance).
There is nothing left of the combative spirit, intellectual intimidation and political authority that heavyweight ANC members like Trevor Manuel, Blade Nzimande and Lindiwe Sisulu wielded with such devastating effect for many years during parliamentary debates. No razor-like ripostes or ready rebuttals, no intimidation or sharp sideswipes.
All that's left is a grinning Bathabile Dlamini (Minister of Social Development), a seemingly unwilling Des van Rooyen (Minister of Local Government and Traditional Affairs) and Nomvula Mokonyane, the Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation, who is apparently managing a bankrupt department.
Maimane aimed at Zuma's exposed weakness and drove a political stake through it: "From the Marikana-34 to the Esidimeni-94, this government has turned against the people of this country. This is a murderous government," Maimane said, to the roaring approval of the opposition benches, deprived of Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) which are boycotting the debate.
The DA's leader cast Zuma as an enemy of South Africans, explaining the governing elite is more worried about attaining and keeping hold of power than using it for the greater public good. He said Zuma's ANC is more focused on ensuring cadres and comrades are enriched by deals like the nuclear or arms procurement programmes than on caring for ordinary South Africans.
The second big roar came when Maimane spoke about last week's Sona, recalling the strict security and the militarisation of the event: "This wasn't the State of the Nation, it was the state against the nation!"
Maimane savaged Zuma and his government. But Zuma's only support came from the deep backwaters of the ANC's unremarkable backbenches — MPs so far away from the fire that they might as well be in another sphere of government.
Derek Hanekom, Minister of Tourism and one of the proponents of Zuma's stepping down, sat in his front bench, staring straight ahead in front of him, his lips pouted — almost as if he was whistling — and each hand on a knee. He didn't look sideways, he didn't look at Maimane and he never even attempted to look at Zuma. He left at the first acceptable opportunity.
The president had a pained expression on his face. He looked old, brow furrowed. He initially made notes while Maimane was speaking, but gave up halfway through. He never looked up at Maimane, even when the DA leader turned his shoulders and spoke directly to him.
Zuma's deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, sat in in the same position for all of the 20 minutes Maimane spoke: legs crossed at the knees, left arm extended on the back of his bench and right hand holding a tablet, which he pretended to read. No emotion, no chats with either of his neighbours (Zuma and Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe) and no jokes.
Zuma stopped writing on his notepad when Maimane elicited the third roar of his speech.
"South Africa will never forget what happened on Thursday. And we will never forget the reaction of the man at the centre of it all. The president stands accused of 783 counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering," Maimane told the House.
At that moment Zuma stopped writing, and started doodling, drawing what seemed (from the press gallery, at least) squares and blocks on the sheet in front of him.
Maimane went on: "The president, who built his house, his monument of corruption, on the backs of the poor. The president who is selling our country to foreign agents."
Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training and part of the "coalition of the wounded" that helped elect Zuma and a staunch defender of the president during his first term of office, also sat back, like most of his colleagues, including Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor. Both listened intently to Maimane, their faces not betraying either indignation or agreement.
Two years ago they would have howled their disapproval.
But Maimane went further, moving beyond Zuma and explaining how the DA would go about rescuing the country's "lost generation", the "born frees" who have been forgotten by the ANC. "The lost generation is the nearly six million mainly black young South Africans who can't find work."
There seems to be an energy among the opposition — EFF included — released by the results of the municipal elections last year. The DA and its benches are brimming with confidence and cockiness — the ANC looks lost.
The governing party sent in lightweights to defend it, with only Zuma stalwart and KwaZulu-Natal firebrand Sihle Zikalala doing any damage to the DA when he concluded the day's events as sweeper.
Asked whether he would comment on the debate when he emerged from the chamber, Jackson Mthembu, the ANC's chief whip, curtly replied: "I'm not talking now."
And, it seems, the ANC is also incapable of acting.Suggest a correction