In the new multi-racial democratic South Africa, the first and only known serious breach of protocol and rowdiness in parliament was between a ruling party member and an opposition legislator in 1998, four years after the end of a long ignominious apartheid rule in the country.
But that was until August 21 in 2014 when usual decorum of debate in the hallowed hall of legislation disappeared. President Jacob Zuma came to a scheduled question-and-answer session in the parliament in Cape Town, but it was not to be. Mayhem overcame the session when members of parliament of the recently-formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party heckled him. EFF members were dislodged by stern-looking security officers. EFF wanted President Zuma to answer their questions on “Nkandla” – the name of his country home which has become synonymous with use of public funds for enhancement of personal assets.
In a critical report, the public protector had said that official expense to renovate President Zuma’s Nkandla homestead was improper and that such items as swimming pool and amphi-theatre could not be included as security items paid for by government. The report concluded that unaccepted items should be reimbursed to government coffers by the president who was the beneficiary. The president had countered that he had nothing to do with the decision on what was done at his homestead, and that the project was handled by designated officials. A committee set up by parliament on the report did not find the president guilty of any wrongdoing and the African National Congress (ANC) party with compelling majority in parliament exonerated the president of any misconduct.
But business could not go on as usual. EFF, hastily formed as a political party a few months to the election of May 20 2014 and that had surprisingly garnered 25 seats in parliament at the election, has used its new membership in the house to torment the majority. EFF is the third most popular party with 25 seats in the 400 member house. The party has six per cent of all votes, next to Democratic Alliance (DA), the lead opposition party, with 89 seats in parliament and 22 per cent of votes. The 102-year-old ANC has 249 seats in parliament, 62 per cent of votes and has ruled since 1994. Despite its few members, EFF has made itself a major force to be reckoned with. It made “Pay back the money” its permanent cry in parliament and vowed that President Zuma would have to return monies spent on non-security and un-entitled items at his Nkandla home or no smooth business would be conducted anytime the president showed up in parliament.
Living up to its word, EFF members turned parliament into a fighting field for the second time on February 12 2015 when President Zuma came to read his annual State of the Nation address. Barely had he started the address than pandemonium broke out with shouts of “Pay back the money”. On cue, smartly dressed security persons swarmed on the EFF members and bundled them out. But not without a struggle that left several people injured and bruised. For the second time in six months, South Africa’s democracy was stretched tautly.
The incident of February 12 generated a lot of heat. The Democratic Alliance (DA) and opposition parties walked out of parliament in protest against breach of parliamentary protocol by allowing in security personnel and for the ejection of EFF members from the house. Just moments before the incident, the airwaves were jammed and phone signals were not available, another action seen as strong arm tactic by the authorities to supplant democracy. There was no doubt that security forces were prepared to forestall the expected disruption of the president’s address. What resulted though was that a traditionally celebratory and almost banal event became a historic marker for parliamentary order or disorder and President Zuma had to deliver his address to only ANC parliamentarians.
EFF leader Julius Malema, 34, and his party leaders have not relented. Their cry is that President Zuma should return to parliament to answer questions on “Nkandla” and other matters, or he would be forced to answer questions on the issue at any opportunity in parliament.
“Nkandla” has split South Africa across many lines. Some use the term “Nkandlagate”, a recall of the infamous Watergate scandal of disgraced United States President Richard Nixon, to signal the importance of the subject. “Nkandla” is seen as yet another in a number of accusations of corruption against President Zuma, even though he has not been convicted of any offence. In counterpoints, “Nkandla” is portrayed as just the latest dirty dress that opponents and critics of President Zuma hang on the line hoping that it would draw attention among several non-issues. The parliamentary committee’s report which did not find the president guilty of any wrongdoing should have closed the issue, they asserted.
Critics of EFF say that the new party has merely tagged on to the “Nkandla” agenda to cultivate publicity. It is advocating anarchy, including in its policy of championing land appropriation and attacking the private sector. Julius Malema was previously a popular leader of ANC’s youth league that played a major role in orchestrating the wrestle for power within the ANC that saw then deputy President Zuma out-manoeuvred then President Thabo Mbeki, to resign abruptly from office. With full backing and support of Malema, President Zuma assumed office in 2009 after a short interim arrangement. However, the friendship between President Zuma and outspoken Malema fizzled and turned sour as Malema made several pronouncements on economic and political issues that embarrassed the ANC but captivated youths and energized disenfranchised, marginalized people. In 2012, Malema was expelled from the ANC and faced investigations.
In anger, Malema poured strings of accusations on President Zuma and ANC. Malema founded a movement that became a political party called EFF to contest elections in May 2014. That EFF won a respectable percentage of votes and seats in parliament confirmed the resonance of Malema’s message with a sizeable population, mainly among the black majority, erstwhile supporters of ANC who were disenchanted with the party. At the same election, President Zuma won his second mandate and has to deal with the EFF in parliament.
The new strong voice of EFF and its uncompromising position is playing out in the parliamentary chaos that may not be resolved anytime soon. Dressed in red housemaid-style gowns for women and red worker-style overalls for men, EFF parliamentarians stand out as rebels-by-choice in parliament. When they wish, they adhere to parliamentary rules. At other times they put up a mastery display of protests and civil disobedience. Although they were suspended and fined for the first rowdiness in parliament in August 2014, it has not daunted their zeal and they turned the parliament upside down a second time in February this year.
After the first incident, deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa intervened and attempted to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution to all parties. It did not go far and compromise could not find a place over political anger . In a recent interview, former President Mbeki described the situation as a political one where technical parliamentary rules approach would not lead to a solution. President Zuma has said that he wanted people who have the competency to make the decision and advise him on whether he ought to pay for any of the jobs done at his private home. For Malema, despite facing criminal charges and friction within his new EFF, he is unbowed. “We are not scared of the ANC. We are not scared of Jacob Zuma. We are not scared of Baleka Mbete (Speaker of parliament). We were elected by our people to hold the executive responsible.”
The new date for President Zuma to appear in parliament is March 11. Until some way forward is agreed, South Africa’s parliament will from time to time turn into “Sollywood” soap operas, a copy of Nollywood, and a mirror of many legislative houses across the world where rowdiness is part of the parliamentary order.
Makinwa is a communication for leadership entrepreneur based in South Africa and Nigeria. Twitter: @bunmimakinwa