Do our political parties value Parliament?
Do our parties and those who shape our national debate really support parliamentary democracy? If they do, why does it only take a couple of dozen disruptive people to get them to sell Parliament short?
Parliament is now a battle ground because two dozen members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) arrived after the May election determined to turn it into one. The EFF thrives on headlines and air time supplied by an ever-adoring media, not on the hard slog work which brings change and better government. From the time it arrived, it has preferred drawing attention to itself by baiting the African National Congress (ANC) to the difficult task of representing its voters in committees and debates.
If our parties really valued Parliament, none of this would have mattered - the ANC would have refused to be baited and the EFF, unable to get the rise it wanted, would have been forced to play by the rules. But the ANC took the bait every time.
The ruling party set the stage for making the problem worse by appointing as Speaker of Parliament its chair, Baleka Mbethe. This ensured that the Speaker would lack the credibility to deal with the disruptions: while Speakers all over the world are party members, a person who also chairs the governing party has dual loyalties - she is expected to be partisan and even-handed at the same time. The problem is greatly worsened by the fact that this Speaker hasn't tried to win the confidence of minority parties - she has risen to the EFF bait by rigidly applying rules which muzzle debate.
The response from the Democratic Alliance (DA) also suggests weak confidence in Parliament and its role.
The EFF and its media fans insist that it disrupts Parliament because the other parties were not militant or aggressive enough - only its methods will bring change. This is fantasy - its tactics have not drawn a single concession from the ANC; the much smaller United Democratic Movement (UDM) has won more change using the 'old' methods. But it has clearly impressed commentators who don't like the president or the ANC and who are happy to cheer anyone who shouts at either - it makes them feel good even if it achieves nothing and also undermines democratic debate.
Since the DA is influenced by these commentators, it seems determined to mimic the EFF rather than showing that it can use Parliament effectively to represent its voters. So it too has declared Nkandla the only topic worth debating (it is a big issue but hardly the only one!) And it too has taken to insulting the governing party or baiting it with cute tricks rather than debating it.
The sad reality, then, is that trust in Parliament and its rules is so low that it takes only a small group of amateur disrupters to persuade the governing party and official opposition to behave in a way which undermines Parliament's credibility.
What happened last week is not a constitutional crisis nor even a serious threat to democracy - there are many other parliaments in which MPs bay at the opposition and call them names and a few in which punch-ups happen in the House. But it is clearly diminishing respect for Parliament among the people. And that is a problem: in a democracy, public mistrust in particular parties is a plus - distrust in the system is a minus and Parliament is a key part of the system.
So what is to be done? Last week's fracas is a challenge to all the parties which claim to value Parliament (this excludes the EFF which will presumably continue disrupting because that is all it knows).
The ANC will need to stop rising to the bait. If it is not willing to remove the Speaker from one of her two posts, it can at the very least ensure that she opens up speaking time for all parties rather than closing it down.
So will the DA. The way it and other opposition parties operated before the EFF arrived not only boosted Parliament's credibility, it produced concrete change. It needs to return to what it does best rather than offering a pale imitation of the EFF.
Public commentators should stop fawning over the disrupters. Democracies are at risk when those who claim to be democrats cheer on undemocratic forces so that they can get at a political enemy. However much you might dislike the president and his party, democrats do not support the use of insult instead of argument, of disruption instead of debate. Happily, argument and debate are also more likely to achieve results.
Those who reject reasoned debate in their eagerness to get at a common foe have no cause for complaint if their cheers damage a Parliament on which our democracy depends.
Professor Steven Friedman is director at the Centre for the Study of Democracy.