How SONA was used to announce Mandela's release

Wednesday, February 6, 2019
How SONA was used to announce Mandela's release

When apartheid negotiations reached a sensitive stage in the late 1980s, former President Nelson Mandela was taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. This was on 12 August 1988. Three months later, and after receiving treatment at two hospitals, the former statesman was then transferred to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl, where he spent the last 14 months of his imprisonment.

Two years later, during the State of the Nation Address speech on 2 February 1990, the then President F W de Klerk announced that the banning of political parties - the ANC, PAC and the SACP, among other organisations, would be lifted. He also announced that politicians, including Mandela, who were imprisoned merely because they were members of the banned political parties, would be released.

A few days later, on 11 February 1990, Mandela was a free man.

While the State of the Nation Address (SONA) dates back to many years ago before the democratic era, the 2 February address is one occasion that the secretary to the National Assembly, Masibulele Xaso, reflected upon when he explained the significance of the occasion during a dialogue on the State of the Nation Address rules and procedures at the National Assembly Chamber, on Tuesday.

“The 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 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 [as a] platform for [the] announcement of the release of founding President of the democratic South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela, and other anti-apartheid activists, by the last apartheid President Mr F W de Klerk,” he said.

Why is the session referred to as the State of the Nation Address? Xaso explains: “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.”

He said in other countries, like Botswana for example, SONA 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”.  

All you need to know about SONA

Xaso – who usually sits in front of Presiding Officers in a black gown during officials sittings of the house – says the State of the Nation Address is a very important occasion that gives the President an opportunity to speak to the nation on very important issues.

Xaso also took those attending the dialogue session through the rules and processions of SONA that usually take place ahead of the President delivering his speech later on in the evening.

“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 programme of action. Traditionally, the President makes key government announcements during this important joint sitting,” he said.

Xaso said the session usually takes place in the month of February and it is a joint sitting of both the houses of Parliament – the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). It is presided over by presiding officers from both the houses. Xaso said importantly, SONA is delivered in Parliament because the priorities pronounced in it have budgetary implications demanding robust oversight, which is one of Parliament’s constitutional priorities.

During the week following SONA, a debate will take place on the President’s speech over a two day period, followed by the President’s response to the debate.

The Ceremonials of SONA

Xaso said the official programme usually begins with processions. There is a procession of the provincial Speakers, Premiers and the Judiciary proceeding to the Assembly Chamber through the main entrance of the National Assembly building.

Then there is the arrival of the presidential calvalcade in the parliamentary precincts.

“The President alights, is welcomed by the Presiding Officers and their deputies and proceeds to the National Assembly Chamber. His Aides-de-camp – who are attached to the President with their role in the country being limited to ceremonial duties – lead the Presidential procession.

“Guards of Honour and eminent persons also line the route to the National Assembly Chamber. Juniour Guards of Honour comprise of 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,” he said.

Eminent persons, who are usually selected by the nominated by provincial Speakers for having achieved outstanding results in their respective fields, usually line up to meet the President before he proceeds to the steps of the National Assembly. This year, however and due to budget cuts, no eminent persons have been nominated or invited.


Xaso said during SONA, the Aides-de-camp travel with the President from his residence to Parliament.

They lead the Presidential procession onto 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 Corridor.”

The 21-gun salute

In 1942, 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,” Xaso said.

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 Sergeant-at-Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod and followed by the Secretary of Parliament,” Xaso said.

Imbongi (Praise singer)

Xaso said a new element of the SONA since the birth of democracy is Imbongi – the praise singer. He said although 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

A 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 Sergeant-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 the Black Rod

The Mace is a symbol of authority of the Speaker of the national Assembly.

“When the Sergeant-at-Arms carries the Mace into the debating chamber and places it before the Speaker, 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 its rich mineral resources. The shape of the Mace recalls the knobkerrie – an African symbol of defence as well as authority and leadership.

Gold not only symbolises our country’s natural wealth, but also the indigenous knowledge of Africa and the ancient African gold mining traditions of Mapungubwe.

The Black Rod, on the other hand, is the symbol of the authority of the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. 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 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 the proceedings are official.

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 a symbolic of the achievement of democracy through dialogue.  

Start of proceedings

Xaso said the Presiding Officers, while standing, bow to the left and then to the right in greeting before requesting a moment of silence for prayer or meditation. Once everyone is seated, the Presiding Officer reads the notice calling the joint sitting and calls on the President to deliver his State of the Nation Address.

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 SONA. On the third day, the President has an opportunity to respond to the debate as well as 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.

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.” –