President Zuma will deliver the 2014 State of the Nation Address (SONA) to a Joint Sitting of the two Houses at 7pm from the National Assembly Chamber on Thursday 13 February. Although this is commonly regarded to be the official opening of Parliament, it is important to note that MPs have started their work earlier this year and have already been attending a jam-packed Committee meeting schedule. There will be another opening of Parliament and SONA address shortly after the general elections in May.
At a press briefing on Tuesday 11 February representatives of Parliament including the Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Mninwa Mahlangu explained that SONA plans and preparations started last year and that this year’s theme is “20 years of a Democratic Parliament”. The total cost of the event, including the post-SONA banquet is R5.7 million, an estimated R2 million drop from last year’s SONA. The proceedings include a parade by the different arms of government, a traditional 21-gun salute, the military marching band, an air force fly-by and a performance by the imbongi, a traditional praise singer.
From left to right: Chairperson of the NCOP, Mr Mahlangu, and Speaker of Parliament, Mr Sisulu.
When asked why the banquet was being hosted at the Convention Centre this year, Sisulu said, “It’s cheaper and easier. The logistics of the tent [last year] were a nightmare...food was only served at midnight”.
Responding to question on why SONA was being held in the evening when it was traditionally held in the morning prior to 2010, putting the city on lock down the whole day and into the night, Mahlangu said “The evening will be observed by millions of people who can watch it after work at home or on big screen televisions that have been set up in shopping centres, taxi ranks etc. This means more investment for the city too as more people can fly in from Johannesburg after work and stay the night in a hotel here”.
Well heeled MPs, members of the judiciary, current cabinet ministers and the like in their slick suits and fancy frocks aside, People’s Assembly was particularly interested in whether members of the public would be able to attend this grand event. As the National Assembly gallery can only accommodate 720, Mahlangu explained that as there are a total of 2000 invited guests, including religious leaders, business owners, trade unionists, school learners, civil society organisations, traditional leaders, members of the diplomatic corps, guests of the President and yes, some general members of the public - the overflow would be accommodated in the old assembly building and E249 in the new assembly building.
Mahlangu went on to say that general members of the public were notified via radio announcements that they could ensure their participation in the event, including bringing their ID or passports to Parliament to reserve tickets on a first come first serve basis.
After the briefing, members of the press were then shown the recently upgraded audio and information technology facilities in the National Assembly. Interestingly for MPs and members of the public alike, every seat in the NA now has a personalised ear piece so that people can listen to real-time translations of not just SONA but any addresses following it, in all 11 languages. Other upgrades include an expansion of the Speaker’s podium, biometric thumb print technology to track attendance and touch screen boxes for each MP where a copy of the Constitution, relevant bills they will be deliberating or voting on in plenary, committee reports and other announcements will be uploaded - and just a click away.
Ravi Poliah, Parliament’s Chief Information Officer, explained that the new system has cost R28 million and “that’s not part of the SONA budget” he quipped, with a subtle smile. The last audio and technology installation back in 2003 cost R23 million.
During the press conference earlier Mahlangu added, “we encourage all people to watch the SONA because it talks directly to them and the things that affect their lives”. The President’s address traditionally focuses on the current political and socio-economic state of the nation, including highlights and challenges from the past year related to unemployment, infrastructure development, education, women’s rights and the like, as well as setting out the policy agenda for the year to come. Following SONA both houses will debate issues raised in President Zuma’s address on the 19 and 20 February 2014, with the President scheduled to respond to the points raised in the debates on 21 February.
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