Don’t con­fuse vi­o­lent thug­gery and race-bait­ing with vi­brant pol­i­tics

Sunday Times - - Opinion -

Par­lia­ment’s de­scent into thug­gery this week was an un­wel­come re­run of the scenes of brutish­ness and in­tol­er­ance that the cham­ber has been home to in re­cent years, es­pe­cially dur­ing the last aw­ful chap­ters of the dam­ag­ing ten­ure of for­mer pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma. Few will wel­come this en­core, least of all a long-suf­fer­ing South African pub­lic grown wary of thiev­ing politi­cians whose own in­ter­ests and those of their par­ties al­ways seem to trump those of the vot­ers who put them on the comfy benches of par­lia­ment, draw­ing big salaries as the pu­ta­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple.

Back in early 2015, Zuma’s state of the na­tion ad­dress was an oc­ca­sion for an un­seemly brawl. Just months later, to an EFF cho­rus of “Pay back the money!”, Zuma chuck­led and chor­tled through an­other chaotic ses­sion. “Nkand­laaaaa,” said SA’s No 1 funny man, and we all had a bit of a laugh. The ex­er­cise served, if any­thing, to show the em­peror in all his ve­nal naked­ness. His dis­re­gard for the peo­ple’s elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives saw the EFF, and later the DA, launch court ap­pli­ca­tions that led to chief jus­tice Mo­go­eng Mo­go­eng’s historic slap­down of a delin­quent pres­i­dent.

Few among us can claim not to have savoured Zuma’s come­up­pance. And be­cause they were still a nov­elty back then, we all rel­ished the sight of hooli­gans in red over­alls and hard hats taking on Zuma, es­pe­cially as he ap­peared able to place him­self above and beyond all le­gal and con­sti­tu­tional checks on his ex­cesses.

Per­haps we all laughed a bit too loudly, for we imag­ined that the last laugh would be at Zuma’s ex­pense, which it was. But at what cost to the na­tion? Be­cause it now ap­pears that a habit of un­ruli­ness and in­tol­er­ance is taking root in par­lia­ment, the holy of holies of our democ­racy.

Can it be that we were all so keen to see the back of

Zuma that we were pre­pared to sac­ri­fice or­der, deco­rum and — for a mo­ment, at least — that democ­racy?

The end ap­peared to jus­tify the means. And it seemed to pay off, be­cause not only did Zuma go, but a warn­ing was sounded to fu­ture prac­ti­tion­ers of mis­rule.

On so­cial me­dia one fre­quently comes across the sen­ti­ment that Zuma is missed, and that our pol­i­tics is

“bor­ing” with­out the Nkandla Crooner. And habits, be they old or new, die hard.

Per­haps it was just a long­ing for the “old days” of ex­cite­ment that prompted the dis­grace­ful scenes in par­lia­ment this week: name-call­ing, naked racism, bot­tle-throw­ing, scuf­fling, punch­ing and even a “fokof”, which is surely not par­lia­men­tary re­gard­less of how many in­quiries one might throw at it.

House chair Thoko Didiza did a rea­son­able job of bring­ing this rab­ble to or­der, and has in­sti­tuted pro­ceed­ings against the of­fend­ers. All strength to her arm in this: there will be few who will not re­joice as the of­fend­ing MPs have a heavy, bound vol­ume of Hansard thrown their way.

But what of the deep cur­rents of in­tol­er­ance and rad­i­cal­ism surg­ing through our troubled body politic? Es­pe­cially with elec­tions just months away. How can your aver­age voter, un­schooled in the niceties of demo­cratic and par­lia­men­tary prac­tice, be ex­pected to show re­straint to­wards those with whom he or she dis­agrees, when MPs can’t be both­ered to hear the other side of the story?

Also, among the bul­ly­ing and blus­ter there were wor­ry­ing signs of racial in­tol­er­ance. EFF leader Julius Malema’s bat­tle cry: “I will never sub­mit to white­ness!” may rally the hard hats, but is hardly the tenor of dis­course one might ex­pect in a non­ra­cial democ­racy.

It was left to Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa to re­mind MPs about the dan­gers of nar­row na­tion­al­ism and eth­nic chau­vin­ism. “We can­not go back to the hor­ri­ble past we had. We can­not re­vert to raw racism and sep­a­ratism. Let us live up to be­ing one na­tion,” he said.

Let’s hope his is not a lone voice in a wilder­ness of rad­i­cal­ism and ran­cour. SA de­serves bet­ter and ex­pects more of its MPs than we were treated to this week.

A habit of un­ruli­ness and in­tol­er­ance is taking root in par­lia­ment

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