The events in Parliament at the State of the Nation were nothing short of appalling. Much time will be spent analysing how this could have happened, what we do now and, what this means for the future of our democracy.
That is good and timely. Parliament has been decaying since its democratic rebirth, hollowed out with each term our people’s representatives grew fat on the backs of the people. As it became incrementally more moribund, South Africans chose to ignore that place rather than react to its consistent, though gradual, decline.
Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the EFF — and the chaos it has unleashed — has changed that. And not for the better. Though we now monitor what our legislators do more carefully, that their sizzle rather than their substance commands our attention is deeply disturbing. It creates the perverse incentive that the EFF seems only happy to take up: the more outlandishly they behave, the more likely we are to listen. It is a dangerous precedent.
And, equally dangerous, is the heavy-handed way in which the ANC is responding. The party has, over time, blurred the distinction between itself and the state. Government may have diluted its commitment to Marxism but it has not reneged its Leninist organisational discipline. However, whereas it previously pretended that such distinctions do exist and, on occasion, even respected them, the signal jamming in the Chamber, the presence of armed police on the floor, and the Speaker’s partisan deference to the Executive, all speaks to something more malicious.
The ANC is no longer interested in pretending that it cares. And as the party starts to increasingly lose power — threatening the patronage network — it will get more aggressive as it tries to hold onto power. The use of the loaded-term “cockroach”, long linked with genocides, is not coincidental.
Our politics is polarising even more than it has been previously. And as it does, the ability for rational discourse diminishes. Nuance is being snuffed out for the sake of simplistic, and thus dangerous, responses.
Take the DA for example. In an immediate interview given by its parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, he spoke about why a police presence on the floor of the House is unacceptable. The media bought it easily – it was a simple message. Helen Zille, by contrast, spent much of her time repeating the same basic point to a struggling political lobby: While the EFF’s treatment was abhorrent, the party’s lack of respect for Parliament or its rules cannot be tolerated. It is a clear warning sign: The DA, too, may become a victim if the lack of nuance becomes the norm.
The EFF’s self-serving tactics are making rational discourse increasingly difficult. And as that takes hold, the kind of behaviour we witnessed last week will become the norm. Parliament will no longer function, as opposed to merely doing its job badly. The health of South Africa’s body politic will no longer be classifiable as growing pains. We will be terminally ill.
As Yeats warned in The Second Coming:
‘‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’’