The State of the Nation Address (SONA) is called in terms of Section 42(5) of the Constitution by the President of the Republic. It is a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament and one of the rare occasions that brings together the three arms of the State under one roof.
SONA provides the President with an opportunity to speak to the nation on the general state of South Africa, to reflect on a wide range of political, economic and social matters within the domestic and global contexts, to account to the nation on the work of Government and to set out Government’s program of action. Traditionally, the President makes key Government announcements during this important joint sitting of Parliament.
It is a ceremonial joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament, called specifically for the President to deliver his SONA and no other business may be considered on this day.
SONA usually takes place during February and is presided over by the Speaker and/or the Chairperson of the Council, by arrangement between them. During the week following the SONA, a debate of approximately two days is held on the SONA. The President is then given an opportunity to reply to the debate on the third day and to close the debate. The SONA is one of the major general debates of the parliamentary year.
The President delivers his SONA before Parliament because Parliament is charged with ensuring that the work flowing from this Address is implemented. Most importantly, SONA is delivered in Parliament because the priorities pronounced in it have budgetary implications demanding robust oversight – one of Parliament’s constitutional responsibilities.
Parliament may accept, reject or amend the allocation of budgets to government departments to ensure that these are line with national priorities as outlined in the SONA. Parliament may also withhold budgets of departments whose annual performance plans are not in line with these priorities.
This practice of the President delivering a state of the nation address goes back to the pre-democratic era. One such address is that of former president Mr F W de Klerk titled Address by the State President, Mr F W De Klerk, DMS, at the Opening of the Second Session of the Ninth Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, Cape Town, 2 February 1990.
During this address, the SONA occasion was used platform for announcement of the release of founding President of the democratic SA, Mr Nelson Mandela, and other anti-apartheid activists, by the last apartheid President, Mr. FW De Klerk.
The session is referred to as the State of the Nation Address to distinguish it from the Opening Address. This usually occurs at the start of a term of Parliament. In practice, the terms SONA and Opening of Parliament are used interchangeably.
In Botswana the SONA is called is called “the President’s Speech”; in India it is called “the President’s Address”; and in New South Wales in Australia it is called “the Governor’s Speech”.
How is the Joint Sitting to deliver SONA convened?
Section 84(2)(d) of the Constitution provides that the President may summon the National Assembly, the National Council of Provinces or Parliament to an extraordinary sitting to conduct special business. Joint Rule 7(1)(a) provides that the President may call a joint sitting of the Houses when it is necessary for the President to deliver the annual or a special address to Parliament.
What are the Ceremonials for SONA?
The official programme usually begins with three processions. There is the procession of provincial Speakers, provincial Premiers and the judiciary proceeding to the Assembly Chamber through the main entrance of the National Assembly building.
There is the arrival of the presidential cavalcade in the parliamentary precincts. The President alights, is welcomed by the Presiding Officers and their deputies and proceeds to the National Assembly Chamber. The aides-de-camp lead the presidential procession (see Aides-de-camp below).
Guards of Honour and Eminent Persons also line the route to the National Assembly Chamber.
Junior Guards of Honour comprise learners from schools around the country. They form a guard of honour from the gates of Parliament, where the President disembarks. The selection takes into account rural and urban dynamics.
The Civil Guard of Honour, selected on the basis of the parliamentary theme for the year, continues where the Junior Guard of Honour end..
The Eminent Persons are South Africans who have achieved outstanding results in their respective fields or who have been recognised for their contribution to society. Provincial Speakers nominate them to be guests of Parliament for the SONA.
These Guards of Honour and involvement of winners of a public participation radio programme have been withdrawn for the February 2019 SONA, to reduce costs.
As the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, aides-de-camp are attached to the President of the Republic of South Africa at all ceremonies of the state. Their role in the country is limited to ceremonial duties. Once this task has been fulfilled they are immediately withdrawn.
During the SONA, they travel with the President from President’s place of residence to Parliament.
The aides-de-camp lead the presidential procession onto a saluting dais, on the steps of the National Assembly, to receive the ceremonial honours, the guard of honour by the National Ceremonial Guard, the 21-gun salute, the national anthem and a salute flight. They then lead the procession into the Chamber and stand guard at the entrance of the Chamber.
In 1842, the 21-gun salute became the international norm as the highest honour a nation rendered and it is fired in honour of the President. The first shot of the salute is synchronised to coincide with the playing of the national anthem. The salute takes one minute and 40 seconds.
In the Chamber
Members of both Houses must be seated before the procession enters. Each of the nine provinces is represented by its full quota of six permanent and four rotating members, seated in the removable cross-benches. A delegation of 10 South African Local Government Association members also occupies seats in the cross-benches.
Members’ guests, representatives of statutory and constitutional bodies, the Judges President, provincial Speakers, Directors-general of state departments, guests from civil society approved by the Presiding Officers and staff of the Presidency and Parliament are accommodated in the National Assembly Galleries, the Officials’ Bays to the right and left of the Speaker’s Chair and in Room E249 and the Old Assembly Chamber via live audio-visual relay of the proceedings in the National Assembly Chamber.
The Presiding Officers and the President enter the Chamber in procession, preceded by the Serjeant-at-Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod and followed by the Secretary to Parliament.
A new element of the SONA since the birth of democracy is Imbongi, the praise singer. Although our Parliament is based on the Westminster traditions, Imbongi praise singing gives Africanness pride of place –narrating the President’s personal history, clan and family lineage in song, dance and narration. Imbongi starts this narration as the presidential procession enters the Chamber.
Sergeant-at-Arms and Usher of the Black Rod
The Sergeant-at-Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod are responsible for compliance with security policy in and around the Chamber and galleries, and implement related instructions from the Speaker, the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and other presiding officers. They also perform ceremonial functions, among others leading the procession into the Chamber at the start of proceedings.
The Serjeant-at-Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod lead the President and the Presiding Officers to their seats and proceed to place the Mace and the Black Rod in place before the Speaker and the Chairperson of the NCOP, respectively.
Mace and Black Rod
The Mace is a symbol of authority of the Speaker of the National Assembly. When the Serjeant-at-Arms carries the Mace into the debating chamber and places it before the Speaker of Parliament, it means that the National Assembly is formally in session and that its proceedings are official.
The Mace was designed to reflect the history, traditions, and diverse cultures and languages of South Africa. The design also celebrates the country’s natural beauty, its plant and animal life and it rich mineral resources. The shape of the mace recalls the knobkerrie, an African symbol of defence as well as authority and leadership. Gold symbolises not only our country’s natural wealth, but also the indigenous knowledge of Africa and the ancient African gold mining traditions of Mapungubwe.
The Black Rod is the symbol of the authority of the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The Black Rod reflects the important role of the provinces in the functioning
of the NCOP. When the Usher of the Black Rod carries the Black Rod into the debating chamber, and places it before the Chairperson of the NCOP, it means that the NCOP is formally in session and that its proceedings are official.
The shape of the Black Rod is in the form of a knobkerrie, an African symbol of defence, of authority and leadership. The protea, at the head of the Black Rod, is South Africa’s National flower, and symbolises national pride. The beadwork reflects on South Africa’s diverse people and its rich cultural heritage. The clasping hands in gold symbolises freedom, peace and cooperation.
The black rod stands in a drum when the council is in session. The drum is an expression of the African tradition of drums calling people to gather and speak. It is also symbolic of our achievement of democracy through dialogue.
Start of Proceedings
The Presiding Officers, while standing, bows to the left and then to the right in greeting and requests a moment of silence for prayer or meditation. Once everyone is seated, the Presiding Officer reads out the notice calling the joint sitting and calls on the President to deliver his Address to the joint sitting.
As the joint sitting is called specifically for the President to deliver his SONA, no other business may be considered on this day. The President then delivers the SONA and no other debate takes place.
Members of all parties have an opportunity to express themselves on the SONA during a full two-day debate in the week following the SONA. On the third day, the President has an opportunity to reply to the debate and to close the debate.
The Joint Rules concerning order in joint sittings and the rules of debate, contained in Chapter 2A of the Joint Rules of Parliament applies to the SONA. Joint Rule 12 also further provides that when the Houses sit jointly the Assembly Rules on discipline remain applicable to Assembly members and the Council Rules on discipline remain applicable to a Council member.
On conclusion of the President’s speech, the Presiding Officer adjourns the sitting. Members are required to wait while the procession leaves the Chamber.
In previous years, the Presiding Officers would host a gala dinner after the SONA for Members of Parliament and invited guests only. Consistent with Parliament’s endeavour to scale down on costs in light of the prevailing economic conditions, this year, again, the post SONA gala dinner will not take place.