OPINION: Jacob Zuma derived pleasure from Sona chaos

No one could have derived any pleasure from the scenes in the National Assembly last Thursday night. No one except President Zuma, it seems.

A series of pictures capturing the President laughing heartily as EFF MPs were forcefully dragged out of the House speaks volumes.

The laughter and the grins confirm everything we need to know about Jacob Zuma; that he is unfit for office and has scant regard for the Constitution. Of course most of the President's actions while in office have shown that he disregards not only Parliament but also our democratic institutions and sees the state as his fiefdom, to be pillaged for personal gain.

How else can we explain his failure to file his declarations of financial interests timeously, his interference in the criminal justice system and blatant disregard of the Public Protector's report into Nkandla? And how else do we understand his failure to account to Parliament regularly? Here is the proverbial 'strong man' who believes that he is above the law.

As Democratic Alliance leader, Musi Maimane said so eloquently in Parliament on Tuesday, here is a 'broken man, presiding over a broken country.' How right Maimane was when he declared that Zuma laughed while the nation cried over the beloved country.

For Zuma governs in no-one's interests but his own and the added shame of last Thursday night is that while our country faces serious challenges including battling to keep the lights on, no-one will remember a word of Zuma's speech. For his speech has been overshadowed by the breaches of the rule of law which take place on his watch with such careless disregard.

And it seems to be contagious. Speaker Baleka Mbete spoke to party faithful in North West calling the EFF 'cockroaches' working with 'Western powers' to take over South Africa. [Note: Mbete has since apologised for her comments.] It must be clear now that Mbete should resign as Speaker. Her loyalty is firstly to the ANC as party chair and then to the institution of Parliament.

But, where to from here? On Tuesday, Parliament's presiding officers, led by Mbete held a press conference, to clarify what happened in the House last week. Ironically, Mbete's statement lambasts the 'assault' on our democracy.

Well, the explanations were all clear as mud. However, what we do know is that Mbete received information on the Wednesday before SONA regarding 'devices' to be used but, unbelievably, seemed not to pay it too much attention given the busyness of the moment. And then as she said, 'what happened, happened.'

Meanwhile, acting for Parliament in the Western Cape High Court action brought by Primedia, Sanef, R2k and others, advocate Norman Arendse, acting for Parliament, admitted that it was the State Security Agency that was responsible for the scrambling devices.

Will the minister of State Security then take responsibility for this and to whom will he account and when?

In the latest statement by the State Security Agency, we are told that the signal was scrambled due to an 'operational error' by a member on duty who failed to 'terminate the device' and that an investigation is underway.

What was the 'device' and why was it there in the first place and for what purpose, one might ask?

No prizes for guessing that some low level bureaucrat will be forced to take responsibility while the political masters in State Security walk free.

But other questions remain, when did the Speaker herself then become aware of the scrambling of the signal and what did she do about it? It seems that journalists informed Parliamentary officials that the signal was scrambled at around 16h30 on the afternoon of SONA.

Plenty of time to fix what was broken ahead of the 19h00 speech.

The Speaker remained adamant that she was within her rights to call in 'security services' in terms of s4 and s11 of the Powers Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act of 2004. Of course that is so in certain circumstances but the real issue here is why the 'police' were disguised as waiters and why were they armed.

The use of such brute force seems to be entirely disproportionate to the 'disturbance' the EFF MPs were accused of causing. It would therefore seem as if the executive and the Presiding Officers carefully orchestrated this plan.

That such brute force came to be used in the chamber changed the game completely. At the heart of democracy is debate and persuasion and last Thursday night we lost the ability to do so; the EFF by not adhering to the Speaker's rulings but more than that, the Speaker allowing armed men, in disguise, to drag and pull MPs out of the House.

The Speaker has clearly lost control of the House if she does not know who the white shirted men were or precisely what kinds of devices there were in the House that day.

One can invoke the Parliamentary Rules and use court procedures as many media and other campaigning organisations have this past week. It is more than fair to 'throw the book' at those who would trample on constitutional rights to receive and impart information. But the law aside, all that still leaves us in a difficult impasse.

The EFF will continue to be obstructionist until Zuma answers the Nkandla question. So, the only real solution is a principled political one in which all parties agree to adhere to the rules- and that includes the President.

At the heart of this destabilisation, is a President who has shown himself to be entirely unaccountable on the issue of Nkandla and the exorbitant amount by which he has been personally enriched.

So any negotiation and consensus that would see the EFF and the President adhere to their constitutional duties would be based on the premise that both parties are committed to the rule of law.

There was scant evidence of this on Thursday night. A laughing President, who is so insecure in power that he needs a phalanx of guards to protect him in Parliament, and the EFF unwilling to bend to the Speaker's ruling, will only continue to tear down our democratic edifice further.

Malema and the EFF seem, for now, to be adhering to the Speaker's rulings. The events on 11 March may well be something else and see the impasse continue.

If we are to restore the dignity of Parliament and the faith citizens have in the democratic process, something will have to give. Will it be Constitution, already straining under the weight of abuses of power or will the ANC and the unruly EFF come to a d├ętente in the interests of the country?

Importantly, will President Zuma do the right thing, abide by the Public Protector's recommendations and simply pay back the money?

One can't see Malema or Zuma blinking first.

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