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Parliament’s attempted lock-down threatens everyone’s freedom

Professor Raymond Suttner

16th February 2015

By: Raymond Suttner

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Apart from the African National Congress (ANC) leadership and MPs, there is a general sense of shock over the violent eviction of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) during the State of the Nation sitting of parliament last week. There is general amazement at what we saw, which had been prepared and rehearsed for days, but which we were not supposed to see, which was to have happened beyond our view. 

The ANC has focused on the problem that Julius Malema and the EFF constituted for the party’s leadership. Regrettably, it has drawn on a limited range of resources to address the challenge of EFF disruption and many of their approaches appear to have violated the law and the constitution.

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We saw a range of violations on Thursday. When media, guests and MPs arrived, they found that mobile phone signals were blocked, making it impossible for journalists or anyone else in the National Assembly chamber to communicate with the world outside, through tweets about proceedings, thus undermining the effectiveness of their work.

Of a more sinister character, it appears in retrospect that the intention was to stop journalists from transmitting events inside the house to viewers and listeners in real time.  When the violence broke out the parliamentary cameras were focused purely on the speaker’s podium and television viewers could not see the eviction of the EFF. It appears that signals for eNCA cameras outside the building had also been jammed.

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After vociferous protests from journalists and opposition MPs, the signals were unblocked inside parliament. Reporters, MPs and visitors were able to record and relay the violent eviction of the EFF MPs through photographs and videos from their mobile phones as it happened. At least one journalist, Beeld editor Adriaan Basson, was restrained from doing this, but the story got out.

Though it is illegal to block signals in this way, it appears that it was the work of the intelligence services, in breach of the integrity of parliament, the law and the constitution. 

These violations seem not to have led to any soul searching on the part of the ANC, focused as it is on dealing with what Speaker and ANC chair Baleka Mbete has since referred to as tools of “the West”, and “irritants” – before chillingly calling Malema a “cockroach”, a term used to fuel the Rwanda genocide.

The EFF had previously announced that they would insist on their right to raise points of order and to ask questions during the President’s address. The Speaker denied them this right in a prepared ruling and eventually asked three of their members to leave. When they refused she called on the sergeant at arms, various other officials of parliament and then security officials to remove the allegedly offending MPs. 

Men dressed in white shirts and black pants, who we now know included members of various police public order units, entered and removed not only the three MPs who had asked questions, but the whole EFF caucus, a collective action that cannot be legally sustainable.

This aggressive action triggered violence from both sides. The EFF has since reported that MP Reneilwe Mashabela, the EFF member who had previous called Zuma a “thief” had her jaw broken in the melee and was in hospital.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) walked out after the presiding officers refused to say whether police were among the men in white shirts or whether it was true that some were armed. They were joined by the UDM, Agang and COPE. The opposition organisations correctly characterised the entry of armed men into the parliamentary precincts as a breach of the separation of powers in that they would have represented the executive. It was also incompatible with parliament as the country’s primary debating chamber where MPs are to be safeguarded from any sense of fear that may be engendered by security forces.

Chillingly, Basson and several photographers reported that President Jacob Zuma laughed as he watched the violent eviction of EFF MPs. As Basson writes in Beeld, he laughed at us, he laughed at our democracy.

“The violence was vulgar, but it was his gleeful chuckle I will never forget. President Jacob Zuma no longer rules South Africa with authority. He is laughing at us.

“Moments after the most brutal violence ever witnessed in a [democratic] South African parliament played out before his eyes, Zuma stood up – the opposition benches in front of him empty – and chuckled. One of those trademark Gedleyihlekisa chuckles. ‘The one who laughs at you while grinding you’ is the meaning of Zuma’s second name.”

“At some point in his life, Zuma decided to literally embody that. On Thursday evening, he laughed at our democracy. He laughed at the EFF members of parliament who had just been beaten-up by armed policemen ‘camouflaged’ in white shirts and black pants

“And he laughed at the DA’s entire caucus that staged an unprecedented walk-out in protest of the presence of violent policemen in the citadel of democracy.

“What type of person gives such a pleased, natural laugh after parliament had just been broken – literally, because of you?”

This is not to say that the EFF were innocent victims or blameless. What is clear is that they set out to create conditions where the President would be unable to proceed with his State of the Nation Address (bugged by intelligence services or infiltrated, it appears from Mbete’s subsequent boastful speech). 

Could the EFF not have waited till the day appointed for asking questions, when their questions had less chance of being been ruled out of order? 

What is also evident is that the EFF’s approach to parliament is limited to one or other form of disruption.  The EFF is not offering a way out of the present attack on democracy and constitutionalism, but in fact aims to create situations where the ANC will be shown in what some may say are “its true colours” as a destroyer of democracy. That may open some peoples eyes to a side of the ANC that they had not recognised, but what does it contribute towards recovering the democracy that is under attack?

Those of us who wish to avoid the type of events that occurred on Thursday are presented on the one hand with a ruling party determined to teach the EFF a lesson and on the other an EFF with a limited approach to politics and no coherent strategy for change.

The ultimate reason for the disruptions is that the Presidency and the ANC parliamentary majority are unwilling to allow parliamentary oversight. The ruling party is contemptuous of the democracy that an earlier ANC brought to this country. They are unmoved by the public outrage, and the speaker, in her capacity as ANC chair, is in fact inciting more of this at provincial and local levels. 

On the other side there is a group who have made it clear in their own way that they do not set great store by constitutionalism and that their goal is not to defend it, but rather to put it under the type of strain that may also lead to violence.

Thus Malema tells his “dissident” MP Andile Mngxitama and his followers: “I’m warning them because anyone who is going to stand in front of this train [of economic freedom], it will crush you.”

This moment in our democratic development requires leadership that can find common ground and compromise when necessary to save what is greater than any party political issue. 

Before we can address the problems of the day we need an unqualified commitment to democratic rule under the constitution. Even the DA, which has just taken issue with the flouting of constitutionalism, has not followed constitutional rule in the areas over which it has control, mainly in the Western Cape. This is evident in the failure to provide basic services, illegal evictions and other infringements of the constitution.

The newly formed United Front, though vociferous over other issues, has not said a word about the violence in parliament. There is a mistaken view that radicalism relates purely to social and economic transformation and that it can happen without commitment to a framework of legality. We, as the public need to urgently insist on legality and to take steps to initiate a coalition of forces for the restoration of constitutional democracy.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He spent over eleven years as a political prisoner or under house arrest. His book 'Recovering democracy in South Africa' will be published by Jacana Media at the end of February 2015. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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