The events that occurred in Parliament last week have generated a significant amount of debate in South Africa. And for good reason.
Police entered the Chamber in 1966 when an apartheid-era prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, was assassinated on the floor of the House by a messenger in the Old Assembly.
No one died last week. Injuries were sustained but life was not lost. But the scenes that now dominate the public sphere tell a more chilling story: the images of riot police roughing up MPs is more serious than a few cuts and bruises. Something did die that day: the legitimacy of Parliament as an institution. And blame for this, by and large, rests at the feet of all parties, not just the ANC.
Although, the ANC does probably deserve the lion’s share. In its desire to protect Jacob Zuma from proper scrutiny, it has forgone all pretence of having any respect for Parliament’s oversight role. This is none the clearer than through its deployment of Baleka Mbete to the speakership.
Since she last occupied that seat, Mbete has moved further up the ANC’s ranks: she serves as ANC chairperson and as well as on the ANC’s parliamentary political committee (which she once chaired). The problem with this is a clear conflict of interest that is created: she cannot be scrupulously independent, as the speaker needs to be, while occupying fundamentally politicised roles, as she does. Her failure to balance the competing roles and interests is not necessarily an indictment on her: any person would find it very difficult to do so, especially considering how much more difficult that is made by proportional representation.
But, Mbete has shown a particular disregard for parliamentary practice when it comes to getting in the way of her political office. Of course, Mbete’s disregard for the Constitution and the democratic spirit is symptomatic of a deeper pathology of the ANC, which has festered under Zuma’s rule.
The EFF also deserves some blame. It has wilfully sought to wreak havoc on the House in a self-interested and self-serving way. The regular flouting of the rules, obstructionist and obstinate position adopted by many of its MPs, and a sheer contempt for parliamentary protocol, has all added to the atmosphere of chaos that now plagues the House.
And it is no wonder why: it has done so to capture the public imagination and it has been ably assisted by many a media commentator who hails the EFF as the second coming. While it is understandable that the EFF should be praised for shuffling things about in the House, the ease with which people are willing to overlook their contributory role in damaging Parliament’s foundations is unforgiveable. The EFF might be making Parliament more watchable, but the question remains at what cost will it do so? Every time an insult is hurled, an order ignored, a debate filibustered, Parliament’s ability to do its job, and its integrity, only gets worse.
The DA is in a slightly more peculiar position. It is wedged between a rock and a hard place and seems to not quite know how to manage it. On one hand, it has sided with the ANC in silencing the EFF when the red-clad brigade started stealing the limelight away from it. On the other, it has actively worked with — and as of last week, even defended — the EFF against the ruling party. Whether that is for principle or self-interest is less clear.
What is needed, then, from the official opposition is a clear and unambivalent statement of how it views the conduct of both the ANC and the EFF. It must not opportunistically work with either in order to try and inflict wounds on the other. Not only could that incentivise both of its ad hoc partners to gang up against the DA itself, it is also a dangerous strategy to pursue as every time it props up an errant action from one or the other, the threshold of acceptability slips even further on its watch. The DA needs Parliament in order to remain in the public space — like the EFF has shown it can do. It would be foolish to try and aid either the EFF or the ANC in their attempts to out-do each other. For if it does, then it too is complicit in the death of the institution.
Whatever your political affiliation, and irrespective of your beliefs as to how to apportion blame, there is a more serious, non-partisan, issue here that needs to be addressed. The integrity of our Parliament — as the place for oversight, accountability and debate — is at stake. Our politicians seem blind to the fact that this plague, which rots the House from the backbenches forward, is something that threatens them and us too. Rather than be overawed by their despicable in actions in the House, we should not let them forget that they owe us their service and not their cheap theatre.