OPINION: Our broken democracy

It's the 'new normal'. Each time the president comes to Parliament, the EFF disrupts the session. EFF leader Julius Malema has vowed that President Jacob Zuma will never speak uninterrupted in the National Assembly again. The president's credibility is in shreds creating 'open season' for anyone who wishes to attack him.

And so it was on Tuesday when presidential question time was about to start. The scenes are all too familiar to South Africans now. The EFF objected to the 'illegitimate president' and Speaker Baleka Mbete started calling the individual names of those EFF MPs who were singing and chanting. In terms of the new parliamentary rule, members of the Parliamentary Protection Services, without name badges, entered the House and removed the EFF MPs. Things turned ugly when they all came to blows.

EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi (left) is forcefully removed from the National Assembly along with other party members on 17 May 2016. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN.

An even more unsavoury and violent scene then played itself out outside Parliament when EFF MPs were seen banging at the doors of the National Assembly and a glass door was broken.

The shattered glass is probably an accurate reflection of all that is broken in our democracy.

This is South Africa under Jacob Zuma.

Within Parliament we have now reached an impasse, most of it surrounding the president himself and his unwillingness to subject himself to the scrutiny of the Constitution. For years Zuma told Parliament that he had nothing to hide in relation to Nkandla. In fact, he seemed to derive pleasure out of mocking the issue. Who can forget his roaring laughter and long drawn-out cries of 'Nkaaandla!' Yet, the ConCourt found that Zuma had failed to protect, defend and uphold the Constitution in relation to the very issue.

And herein lies the rub. While the ConCourt has ordered Zuma to pay back the amount by which he was enriched, he has, with swathes of the country, including some in his party and within Parliament, lost legitimacy. Every day that passes is another day in which South Africa holds its breath wondering whether Zuma will do the unthinkable and fire Pravin Gordhan, or some other such rash action. After all, he had no qualms about firing then Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and wiping R106 billion off the value of the government pension fund.

Since the president has shown himself equal to the task of manipulating institutions, it comes as no surprise then that the pliable and deeply compromised Speaker should seek to provide Zuma with the protection he needs. She has done this faithfully through the Nkandla debacle as well as in Parliament's weak and disingenuous response to the ConCourt judgment on Nkandla. Mbete's position as Speaker and chair of the ANC are clearly in conflict and her position untenable. She has also indicated her own political ambitions, which create an even further challenge as she holds the position.

So at the heart of the discontent and violence in Parliament sits Zuma, protected and thus emboldened by such protection. Yet, beyond what Musi Maimane calls 'the broken man', Zuma, we have a democracy which is broken and in urgent need of fixing. The EFF has said that 'peaceful means' have failed and thus their actions are justified. The trouble, of course, is that the EFF simply does not have the numbers to unseat Zuma. Instead, it has used the strategy of heckling, and now violence in what it called defence of our 'constitutional democracy'.

Yet, the Constitution itself is the very product of negotiation and compromise. Granted, its drafters may not have envisaged such brazen recalcitrance from a sitting president, now facing charges of corruption. But part of the EFF's presence in Parliament is about understanding the rules, embracing those and then making its case to voters. It will only be the voters or the ANC itself that can unseat Zuma. The latter is unlikely in the short term, and the former too. The EFF will therefore need a fresh strategy because disruption and violence alos reach a threshold eventually. The politics must be won on the streets and at the ballot box.

The image of Parliament has been damaged, by the EFF, the ANC and President Zuma and the important mechanism of accountability, namely presidential question time, has now been reduced to violent mayhem. After yesterday's violent eviction, Zuma was his usual unfazed self, and continued to answer questions. He was allowed to get away with glib responses to the question of accountability to the Constitution by the Head of State and his Cabinet members. The distraction of EFF MPs coming to blows will be what the session will be remembered for.

The language of violence is of course writ large onto the South African landscape. All around us we see attempts at problem solving through violent actions; on campuses across the country; in Vuwani so tragically; and in our high levels of interpersonal violent crime. Sadly, our MPs are not beyond violence either.

But there are other sinister forms of violence which often work slowly to erode peace. As Catholic scholar Christopher Clohessy has said elsewhere, "When a child dies of starvation or malnutrition, it's a kind of violence. When human beings suffer from preventable diseases, when they are denied a decent education, housing, and opportunity to raise a family, or to participate in their own governance, it's a kind of violence. We need to actively work against such an absence of peace, with the understanding that peace doesn't just happen. There are things that make for peace: there has to be justice in the way people are treated for instance. There has to be honesty, so that people can trust each other. There have to be moments when we are willing to compromise. Justice, honesty, and a certain compromise: these are the things that make for peace."

These words are timely and sage and go far beyond the petty (and often dangerous) politics of now. What is happening in Parliament is simply another repercussion of a lack of accountability within government, deepening levels of inequality and corrupt leaders who place their own narrow interests ahead of those of the country. And an injustice in the way people are treated.

South Africa's democracy is at a crisis point, as are our institutions. What we saw in Parliament on Tuesday does not help our cause. In fact, it eviscerates the very power of our Constitution and its values of non-violence, dialogue and negotiation.

_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judithfebruary_