A game-changing moment in our country’s politics
When ANC parliamentarian Johnny de Lange and his National Party counterpart Manie Schoeman famously exchanged blows in Parliament about 15 years ago, the Speaker, Frene Ginwala, was in her office and had delegated the running of the session to another presiding officer.
Ginwala spotted the ruckus on a TV monitor in her office and rushed to the National Assembly to take charge.
She took her seat and barked: “Order!”
The house fell silent while she scolded the members for their unbecoming behaviour.
Ginwala’s authority was uncontested across the aisles. She was the imperious matriarch of the democracy, respected and feared in the parliamentary precinct.
The scenes in Parliament this week were a stark reminder of just how far South Africa has travelled since then.
After the fracas on Thursday, there was the predictable blame game and a flurry of traded insults.
Thursday was a game-changing moment in the life of Parliament and in the life of our democracy. It was the realisation of the prediction, repeated so many times since the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won just more than 6% of the vote in the May general elections, that South African politics “would never be the same again”.
The dramas in Parliament and the legislatures forewarned us of a bigger moment to come, but few expected it to come so soon and in such explosive fashion.
Several fundamental things happened on Thursday.
The president fled Parliament. The bulletins and the next morning’s headlines did not put it so bluntly, but there is no other way to interpret President Jacob Zuma’s inability to finish his session. On that afternoon, in his helpless state, his lame duck status was confirmed.
Secondly, the Speaker’s authority was thoroughly undermined, not just by the unruly EFF members but by her own party. It was obvious to the dumbest imbecile that Baleka Mbete’s mandate was to protect Zuma, which is in violation of her constitutional duties.
This undermining of her authority played right into the hands of an EFF that has openly stated that it has come to Parliament to change the rules of engagement. On Thursday Mbete threw away her power, and will probably never fully regain it.
Thirdly, Parliament took the odious step of inviting the police into its hallowed sanctum, a most terrible precedent.
Had the Western Cape police chief bowed to pressure to physically evict the recalcitrant EFF members from the House, blood could have been spilt in the chamber. It would have been an ugly scene that would have played out around the world.
Finally, the EFF established itself as the agenda-setter, knocking the DA off the perch it has enjoyed since Tony Leon introduced the concept of muscular opposition to South African politics.
The leadership of the ANC and of Parliament will now have to reassess how to deal with this new phenomenon. Zuma’s future visits to Parliament are clearly going to be very unpleasant. Plenary sittings are no longer going to be routine speech-making exercises. Ministerial question times are going to be prickly affairs that the ANC whips can no longer manage by deploying backbenchers to make meaningless points of order.
Most uncomfortable for the governing party and the official opposition will be the fact that the public – including many in its own support base – is enjoying the Julius Malema show. Many nodded positively and muttered “it was about time” when presidential obfuscation was met with hooliganism.
WITH GREAT POWER... Baleka Mbete glares across the National Assembly while chaos rages on Thursday