Violence seldom resolves anything. It postpones the real issue, entrenches antipathy, creates new grievances, traumatises innocent bystanders and does a lot of collateral damage. I am writing of course about the opening of the South African parliament.
On Thursday, the country once again confronted the bleak reality that it is the hostage of boorish politicians and bullies. The State of the Nation Address (SONA) used to be a grand ceremonial occasion, from which the citizenry did not feel hostilely excluded. There was a sense of celebration on the streets, albeit manufactured by the ANC. The media were welcome. The military were present in a purely ceremonial capacity, usually looking quite well turned out. Protests were orderly and non-violent. Cape Town’s car-owning class – most not supporters of the ANC in government – tolerated the minimal disruption of the city’s traffic, even though the event back then took place during the working day.
The opening of parliament signalled to South Africans and the world, that the country had made a successful transition from the totalitarian apartheid police state to a peaceful constitutional democracy. All that has changed.
Coils of razor wire and barricades have replaced cheering crowds. Our paranoid president deployed (possibly illegally) a battalion strength number of troops on the streets, a convoy of armoured vehicles loaded with soldiers on the highway, and machineguns inside the parliamentary precinct.
Partying party supporters outside have been replaced by a much smaller rent-a-crowd and schoolchildren bussed in by the ANC to face off against some loutish members of the opposition EFF, itching for a fight and burning T-shirts. This year, smoke bombs were fired by police to keep the factions apart. (The Western Cape ANC should be called to account for how they could think it proper to put school children in harm’s way in a vain attempt to contrive support for Zuma.)
And each successive year, since 2012, the creeping control of securocrats is noticeable; from having the tree canopy of the company gardens hacked open “for snipers” to closing more roads than ever, and having helicopters pointlessly circling the city for hours on end for two days, have soured the event for city workers and residents.
After jamming mobile signals last year, this year in the lead up to SONA, attempts were made to quarantine and restrict parliamentary journalists.
As the civility of proceedings degenerated on the night, the sound feed to the National Assembly was cut numerous times, leaving the media, including the national broadcaster, in the dark.
The sound was loud and clear, however, when an Honourable Member of the ANC started screaming at the top of his lungs, “fuck you”, at a Democratic Alliance MP, who was busy speaking at the time. Rather amusingly, this was translated into sign language on national television by the broadcaster’s service for the deaf.
Events have been well documented and need not be rehashed here. In summary: MPs for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) disrupted proceedings for more than an hour and made it clear they were not going to let the president give his speech. The speaker of parliament ordered them to be removed by the parliamentary protection services and the National Assembly (NA) degenerated into fisticuffs. The EFF claim they were relentlessly beaten once off camera. From the video, it appears the first physical punch was thrown by the EFF.
Visitors in the gallery also found themselves sneezing and coughing. The exact source of the unknown chemical weapon is a mystery.
It was a rerun of the last SONA, only more violent. That it is disgraceful, upsetting, and damaging to both the nation and to the image of the country, is hardly disputable; that it is a manufactured Constitutional crisis is also true. However, harmful as it is, some small comfort can be taken in that it must be seen for what it is – political antics.
SONA and the NA must be fully transparent and must be broadcast live without any censorship; but, one should ask, would the EFF be employing the same strategy if events were not televised? And would the other opposition parties behave as they currently do, were they not vying for attention with the EFF?
Violence has long been the hallmark of South African politics. Now as a reality TV strategy, it seems to be working for the EFF. After 80 minutes of shenanigans and a televised brawl, very few people would have stayed switched on to listen to Zuma’s speech, a SONA more boring and emptier than ever, delivered with less competence than any previous president, to a house emptied of opposition members and lacklustre applause from the gallery. Even ANC MPs were muted in their enthusiasm.
The symbolism of the occasion has always been more important than the SONA speech itself. And this time, once again, not the speech, but the shambolic, shameful event at which it was delivered was the more accurate expression of the State of the Nation.
The blame for this must be shared; first, by a disreputable, chuckling president, who has broken the oath of his office and should have been recalled long ago by the party he is leading to ruin, or more properly, removed by its Members of Parliament, who themselves have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution; and secondly, by EFF leader Julius Malema, who is himself a Frankenstein creation of Zuma and a splinter faction of the ANC, and a man, who according to his biographer, pummelled the face of a disagreeing peer with his fists so badly the person’s face was a mess for weeks.
Malema has brought his street fighting into parliament and Zuma has brought his compromised, corrupting self into the heart of our democracy.
Now, President Zuma has the sticks and stones – the parliamentary “protection” service and the riot police – and Malema has the words – “criminal”, “rotten”, “delinquent”, “broken”. Both like to cast themselves as victims; both have trampled our democratic institutions; neither can be trusted and neither of them is deserving of South Africa.