Parliament's madding crowd
Of course it was destined to happen. The moment Julius Malema tackled President Jacob Zuma on the Nkandla issue was always going to cause pandemonium. But when it did, a constellation of shame followed. A president who shows disdain for parliamentary accountability, a Speaker who abuses her powers, Members of Parliament who have no respect for that hallowed institution, a state which deploys heavily armed riot police to fight political battles. On this same day, one of South Africa's last surviving political icons Ahmed Kathrada turned 85. It was also the day he got to watch footage of the democratic Parliament that he, Nelson Mandela and others dedicated their lives to building being turned into a farce and a disgrace.
"Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches by example… If the government becomes the law breaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man [person] to become a law unto himself…"
This quote by US Supreme Court Justice Louis D Brandeis is what Public Protector Thuli Madonsela opened her report on the Nkandla security upgrades, "Secure in Comfort", with. She chose that quote for a reason. It was a caution and perhaps even a prediction of what could happen when those in positions of power flout the laws they are meant to guard.
"It invites every man to become a law unto himself."
This it certainly did.
In unprecedented scenes in South Africa's 20-year democracy, a sitting of the National Assembly was suspended during the president's question time. Zuma was scheduled to answer six questions during his first question session of the new Parliament. He only made it up to the third question, which was posed by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema. Malema's question to Zuma was: "When will he respond to the Public Protector's report on the security upgrades at his residence in Nkandla?"
Zuma had a one-line response - that he had already submitted a report to Parliament last week. Up to that point, all was well. Zuma had been laughing intermittently, and chortled along with MPs at his own mistake when he said he had submitted the report on 14 August 1994. But in a follow-up question, Malema went for the jugular. He wanted to know when the president would be paying back the money for the upgrades at his home, which he benefitted improperly from. (Madonsela had recommended in her report that Zuma pay back to the state a percentage of the funds.)
A chorus of protests ensued, with ANC MPs trying to call Malema to order. Malema demanded that Zuma answer and not hide behind points of order. Zuma said he had responded "appropriately" to all the reports about Nkandla, not only that of the Public Protector, and the issue of payment had been "referred to those legally authorised to make that determination". But Zuma was interrupted by a persistent ANC MP, trying rather absurdly to argue that according to the rule book, whoever is speaking in Parliament should not be interrupted.
This led to EFF MP Floyd Shivambu engaging in a heated exchange with Speaker Baleka Mbete that Zuma should answer the question about the payment. Mbete threatened to throw Shivambu out of the House, but this only encouraged other EFF MPs to join in and shout into the microphones that Zuma should answer. "Pay back the money!" they chanted repeatedly.
Mbete was in a fit of rage, demanding that the EFF sit down and that United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa proceed to ask his follow up question. It could not happen. There was complete pandemonium and Mbete eventually suspended the sitting until matters could be brought to order.
This was when things really became bizarre. First the sound was cut off from the live feed so those watching on television could not hear what was going on. As the EFF MPs refused to leave the House, Parliament's security personnel tried to remove journalists from the media bay to prevent them reporting what was happening. Then visuals from inside the chamber were cut off.
Journalists refused to leave and continued to report via twitter about the continuing chaos. EFF MPs continued chanting and singing, while ANC MPs were threatening to storm the House to physically attack them.
And then, astonishingly, a contingent of heavily armed riot police filed through the entrance of Parliament in what appeared to be an operation to forcibly remove the EFF MPs. In a scene never seen before, officers carrying guns, batons and shields were stomping around the House while the parliamentary mace was still positioned in front of the Speaker's bench. This signals that the National Assembly is still in session.
For a few minutes, South Africa was on the brink of something truly horrendous. Had the riot police tried to remove the EFF from the House, all hell would have broken loose. The EFF would have resisted, and the public order policing unit, not known for their restraint, would have used force.
Here's the big problem for whomever it was who called in the riot police to deal with a political battle and protect the president from having to answer difficult questions in Parliament: the Constitution of the Republic prohibits the arrest of any Member of Parliament for "anything they have said in, produced before or submitted to the Assembly or any of its committees". Essentially, the police would have violated the Constitution had they gone ahead with the operation.
It would have been the point of no return.
Mercifully, reason prevailed, and the police contingent was withdrawn. All MPs returned to the House and Mbete formally adjourned the session. She announced that Zuma had left to continue with his presidential duties and another time would have to be found for him to resume answering the questions. "But South Africa knows the president was here to perform his constitutional duty and was not given the opportunity to finish off," Mbete said.
There was a bombardment of media statements afterwards, with the ANC and SACP condemning the EFF's conduct as "anarchic" and "reprehensible". "Today's deliberate and planned anarchy is a further confirmation that the EFF does not see Parliament and legislatures as forums for the contestation of ideas, advancement of superior arguments and space for pursuit of alternative policies through superior arguments. Instead, the party see these democratic institutions as a jungle where there is intolerance of differing views and where their opinions are forced unto others through thuggery, mayhem and dastardliness," the ANC chief whip's office said in a statement.
The SACP said: "EFF's anarchic and childish disorder must be rejected by all in society in the interest of a democratic and prosperous South Africa. The SACP calls on the relevant state authorities to look deeper into this pattern, which is characterised by disruptive and disrespectful mischief clearly reflecting an intention to destabilise the country. The controllers behind this rascal behaviour must be exposed."
The EFF said they could not "join the toothless tactics of parliamentary procedure when the very foundation of the rule of law is undermined by the executive". "The Public Protector has done her job; she has given time and a directives to the president, but the president has undermined all of this. He comes to parliament hoping to escape accountability through his majority in parliament and the ANC speaker." The EFF demanded that Zuma must provide the date on which he will be paying the money "unduly spent in Nkandla".
The Democratic Alliance (DA) said both the EFF and the Speaker had undermined Parliament in their conduct. "The Speaker failed by not insisting that the President answer the question which the EFF rightfully put to him in terms of the rules. The Speaker acted with haste and unduly summoned the Sergeant at Arms to expel the EFF from proceedings in the House and ultimately called in the heavily armed riot police," DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said. "Members of the EFF failed, equally, by not respecting the proceedings of the House and removed Parliament's opportunity to hold the President to account."
It was the reaction of a furious ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe that was concerning, however. In an interview with Talk Radio 702, Mantashe said the state should have intervened decisively to deal with the EFF, whom he again referred to as fascists. He said the state had to be vigilant or it would be overthrown. It seems that Mantashe was disappointed that the police had not arrested the EFF MPs. It also creates the impression that the ANC, now unable to contend with the EFF, has adopted a siege mentality.
In such circumstances, rational thought could be compromised and even more outrageous behaviour could follow.
And so in this wasteland of broken parliamentary rules and shocking behaviour, the South African Parliament must reconvene and continue to function. There needs to be consequences, something that deal with the abnormality of South African politics.
The result, though, is that Zuma escaped yet another opportunity to be held accountable.
Fifteen hundred kilometres away from the mayhem, a host of notable figures gathered at the Nelson Mandela Foundation on Thursday evening for a screening of a new documentary on Ahmed Kathrada's life, in honour of his 85th birthday. The events at Parliament earlier in the day dominated talk amongst the guests.
Kathrada sat in the front row enraptured by pictures of his life and precious moments with his comrades during the years of struggle. He was flanked by his partner Barbara Hogan and former President Kgalema Motlanthe. Other guests included lawyer of the Rivonia trialists George Bizos, former Speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, former Robben Island prisoner Laloo Chiba, former minister Trevor Manuel and Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
It was as if the last mainstays of decency and moral authority had taken shelter there, at that sacred place that holds the memory of Nelson Mandela. Far from the madding crowd. Far from the madness.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.