Democratic Alert

SA democracy in mortal danger as ANC loses its grip

Mbete reads parliament the “riot act”
Speaker Mbethe.jpg

The spectacle of riot police assaulting MPs in South Africa’s parliament last week is the clearest indication yet that the country’s democracy is in mortal danger as signs abound of the ANC losing control.

Not only was the police action a blatant assault on the principle of the separation of powers and the independence of parliament, but it also carried the fingerprints of the misuse of an arm of the security services similar to that which what caused a constitutional crisis recently in neighbouring Lesotho.

Fact is that the police on Thursday night invaded the national assembly against the wishes of, and under protest, from parliament’s own independent security unit. Their action also had all the hallmarks of having been on close standby-mode, ready to execute a pre-planned operation.

From being at hand, to being kitted out in riot gear to having someone in the TV control room to switch of the feed from the house – shielding their action from the public in the “parliament of the people for the people” – the incident indicates advanced planning by some intelligence/security agency or agencies.

Speaker of the House, Baleka Mbete, when addressing the media on Friday on the events of the previous night, came pretty close to admitting such prior planning when she claimed the disruptions – opposition’s filibustering the debate on the ANC’s Nkandla report – was pre-planned.

Filibustering is an acceptable democratic process with a tradition going as far back as the existence of parliamentary democracy itself. Why did cabinet ministers, especially key senior ministers not register their own protest against the opposition’s conduct by withdrawing from proceedings?

Instead, some senior cabinet ministers, like Lindiwe Zulu became personally involved in confrontations after the riot police had arrived in the assembly and had to be physically restrained from entering into a brawl with another MP.

The serious question

The really serious question that arises is: Who was responsible for the pre-planning of the operation and more pertinently, who ordered police to the assembly and gave the order to go into action?

Claims from some quarters that they acted on their own initiative simply do not wash. The arrogance with which one of the senior officers present reportedly said to EFF MP, Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela, as he was forcibly removing her from the chamber, “Listen lady, this is how we do things in South Africa,” speaks of a man very clear about his instructions.

It also seems unlikely that speaker Mbete acted on her own in ordering the riot police to the assembly. She simply does not have the authority to do so.

She can also hardly claim that she was caught by surprise on the day. At the normal, standard programming committee’s meeting in the morning she was given notice of the opposition parties’ intentions to introduce a string of motions.

The questions that arise are among others: Did she consult with cabinet members after the planning committee’s meeting and if she did with whom; did she consult with Luthuli House in the person of ANC-secretary general Gwede Mantashe; when, and by whom, was the riot police placed on standby?

Whatever the answers to these and many more around this incident may be, there can be little doubt that its signalled a serious crisis for the South African constitution and democracy in the country.

Losing grip

The incident in parliament is also not the only sign that the ANC is losing its grip. It coincides with a number of crisis situations on a multitude of fronts, including:

• The split down the middle of its trade union alliance partner, Cosatu signalling a much broader challenge on the labour and economic policy-front and at the polling booth;

• With the Cosatu split comes the prospect of a repeat of the kind of labour disruptions and turmoil the National Party government had to contend with in the 1980s;

• The disappearance of President Jacob Zuma, not only from the parliamentary scene but from all important domestic issues – increasingly showing the signs of a “lame-duck president” not able to lead anymore;

• The land invasion at Nellmapius 15 years after a farm had been bought for low-cost housing development without anything happening, forcing the ANC city councillor to go into hiding in a “safe house”; and

• Country wide, often violent, service delivery protests and the proliferation of shack dwellers and other activist and militant civil society organisations.

Last week we posed the question: How will the ANC react when they run the risk to lose the all-pervasive power and the perks that come with it that they have enjoyed since 1994? What happened in parliament last week might just give a hint as to what the answer to that question is. Tumulous times are ahead.

by Piet Coetzer

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