OPINION: The day part of our democracy died

There are certain moments in South African political life which simply lodge in one's memory. The day 25 years ago when FW De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other political parties was one such day. And then there was the day Nelson Mandela strode out of Victor Verster prison like the colossus he was, head held high. We all stood tall that day despite the uncertainties of that moment.

We won't forget that sombre day in 2005 when former President Thabo Mbeki told a joint sitting of the House that he was releasing Jacob Zuma from his position as deputy president. That, of course, all eventually led to the epic night in September 2008 when Mbeki himself would be recalled from office by his own party.

Yet through all this our democracy held firm, bruised and battered but firm.

Twelve February 2015 will be remembered as the night our politics shifted in a dangerous direction.

As Zuma was ushered into the House last night there was already decided unease with scuffles and arrests of DA and EFF members earlier in the day. The EFF's threat to disrupt the sitting was clearly being taken seriously. The atmosphere was tense and wandering around the precinct one felt a sense of lockdown and siege. Word quickly spread that the mobile phone signal in Parliament had been 'jammed'. No tweets, video feed seemed to be allowed.

The opposition rose as one calling, ' bring back the signal!'. And so the drama of the night unfolded.

What followed next will always be remembered as a dark day for South Africa's democratic Parliament. The images will remain with us. But first, in a dignified, rules-based showing, the DA's Musi Maimane and Corne Mulder demanded the signal be unscrambled. And so it was in the end, despite the Speaker wishing to kick the matter into touch and refer it to the Secretary of Parliament. Kudos to the opposition for a principled stance on the matter - a bright point in an otherwise bleak night.

Once consecutive 'points of order' were raised by the EFF, the abuse of process (because that's what it was) further raised Speaker Mbete's ire. It was then that we were set on an irretrievable path with police (in plain clothes) being called in. As we watched EFF MPs being dragged, pushed and bullied out of Parliament, a part of 'the People's Parliament' envisaged in the Constitution died. Any ruling party that acquiesces to the use of police force being used in Parliament has lost the argument and run out of ideas.

Despite the din outside the House as the DA, EFF and UDM walked out, some fundamental questions remain and in the clear light of day need to be answered if the Speaker and the institution of Parliament are to regain any shred of credibility.

They are simply and crisply:

  • Who gave the instruction to scramble the mobile phone signal in Parliament? When the matter was raised initially, the Speaker barely seemed shocked by this breach of the Constitution and possible illegality. Did she know about such a potentially illegal act and if so, what did she do to protect the sovereignty of Parliament?

  • Is the Twitter rumour mill to be believed that deputy President Rampahosa sent a note to State Security minister David Mhlabo after which the signal was unscrambled?

  • Who were the men in white shirts that manhandled MPs and injured one? Were they members of the police force and if so, on what basis did Mbete call for their assistance? Why were they in plain clothes? The Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act of 2004 is clear that security may only enter Parliament if there is, inter alia, an 'imminent danger'.

For a while now, many in civil society have raised the spectre of a state increasingly insecure with tendencies towards securitisation. The Marikana massacre was the high water mark of state brutality. Last night we seem to have crossed another dangerous line, as Parliament's presiding officers seemed to have lost control. What cannot be solved through politics and deliberation must then be solved through force, it would seem. There is little to recommend in the EFF's conduct and given the divisions within its ranks, they might have done themselves more harm than good last night. This was a night with no winners.

Yet, lest we forget, what is behind all of this upheaval? It is that the president has been entirely unaccountable for excessive expenditure on his personal homestead at Nkandla.

As he stepped up to the podium last night, Zuma had the opportunity to take the moral high ground and depart from his dull, scripted speech and reflect on the shocking scenes just witnessed. He had an opportunity to protest the jamming of the signal and state his government's commitment to openness and transparency - two founding principles in our Constitution. Instead, he began what was probably the greatest non sequitur in the circumstances. He simply continued his speech as if nothing happened.

Sadly for Zuma and the ANC, no one will remember a word of it. This State of the Nation Address will be remembered as the day a part of our open democracy died. Quite how we retrieve it and how Parliament regains its credibility remains to be seen.

It will not be easy. As the president finished a dull, lacklustre speech displaying little vision, one wondered what this night's great unleashing catharsis was? All our weaknesses have been exposed, our democratic fragility laid bare. As Zuma laughed and grinned his way through his speech in typically duplicitous fashion, we understood too that this presidency will need to run its course for there is no one part of the ruling party able to take Zuma on.

Further deriding the misfortunes of Bafana Bafana in the recent Afcon tournament, one could not help but conclude that this show of laughter at the mediocrity which is our national football team is really symbolic of where we are and what Zuma, and the ANC, thinks is good enough for us - second best.

After the speech drew to a painfully slow end, and ANC MPs danced out, united in song, one could not help but wonder what Madiba would have made of this torturous night.

Yet the enduring picture is of Zuma, a latter day Nero, fiddling and all around him "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity".

WB Yeats has never sounded as apposite as last night.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).