Governance Watch

Parliament 2016 – not only Zuma on trial

SONA 2015 - repeat in 2016?

When parliament opens this week for its 2016 session not only President Jacob Zuma with his State of the Nation Address will be on trial. Democracy itself will be at stake.

Parliament as an institution, some of its office bearers and structures, all political parties represented in it and the democratic order it represents will face their sternest test since 1994. It comes amid mounting evidence that the citizenry is losing faith in the existing order.

Amid increasing economic pressures on ordinary citizens and in line with global trends populist politics are on the rise while the explosion in the role of social media has emboldened ordinary people with feelings of new empowerment. It is a pattern on par with what also happened under conditions of economic crisis and high levels of corruption in countries like Spain.

There are also signs that support structures of the existing social order, like trade unions, are times finding themselves marginalised – as was illustrated last week with developments surrounding strike action at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).

And, on the eve of the new parliamentary year, there were ominous signs that there might not only be a repeat of last year’s chaotic start to parliamentary proceedings, but that it might even be worse.

Last year’s message

After last year’s start to the parliamentary year, under the heading “South Africa questions its democracy after parliament brawl” Reuters reported: “State of Chaos, was how South African newspapers described the images of police and politicians trading blows at the opening of parliament, a damning assessment of the country’s democracy twenty years after apartheid.”

The chaos erupted almost immediately after President Zuma started delivering his SONA when the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) confronted him with questions regarding “Nkandla Gate.” Eventually armed guards for the first time in history entered the Assembly chamber to remove EFF-members, the official opposition Democratic Alliance walked out and two of its members were arrested, while cell phone connectivity in the chamber was scrambled.

In the aftermath of the affair Speaker Baleka Mbete became embroiled in controversy over her alleged lack of impartiality as presiding officer in parliament – one of the issues that then regularly clouded last year’s parliamentary proceedings.

Reuters reported a Business Day editorial that stated: “This should not be normal in an open democratic society. Something is deeply wrong if a country, that claims to be democratic, experiences this kind of paralysis while its citizens get used to a culture of thuggery at the highest level.”

It also predicted that “the incident will increase pressure on Zuma, who has been beset by scandal throughout his career”.

That something else is also seriously wrong in South Africa’s democracy was identified as long ago as 2007 in a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel under the headline “South Africa’s Democracy in Trouble”.

Referring to what came to light in Germany with regard to South Africa’s arms deal of almost $10 billion in the late 1990s, it wrote: “South Africa's democracy isn't looking too good these days. Not only is violent crime rampant, but so, too, is corruption in the upper echelons of government. German companies bear some of the guilt.”

The article, authored by Andrew Feinstein – an ex-ANC member of parliament and head of its public accounts committee, also stated that: “Perhaps worse (than violent crime) though is the involvement of senior members of government and officials of the ruling African National Congress in significant business deals linked to the state – which has created the perception of a new elite benefiting inappropriately from political patronage.”

It deals in some detail with how the then deputy president Zuma’s close friends and associates were involved in the channelling of millions of rands in improper ‘commissions’ during the arms procurement process.

These are some of the background circumstances which played into the chaotic start of last year’s parliamentary procedures and which repeated itself at least three more times during the course of the year.

The question is: Will it be better this year – especially since new parliamentary rules were put in place last year to try and prevent a recurrence of last year’s events?

Ominous signs

For a start, the EFF’s chief whip, Floyd Shivambu, went on record that his party rejected some of the new rules. The EFF could not support the physical removal of MPs for something they said with their mouths, he said. And, the United Democratic Movement warned that the rules would not resolve the political issues in Parliament.

In the meantime, opposition parties, including the DA, at the end of last year, indicated that they will be disrupting the SONA. It came in the wake of the so-called “Nene-affair,” seeing three Minister of Finance in four days with a huge economic fallout.

The DA said it wants a snap debate on Zuma’s fitness to hold office and the EFF said it will make sure the SONA doesn't go ahead.

The Speaker has indicated the DA’s request will not be granted and we are likely to see a repeat of multiple points of order during the SONA.

In the meantime, the Speaker cast a renewed shadow over her own neutrality in the chair with politically contentious statements last week, jumping boots and all into the highly inflamed racial debate of recent weeks.

Holding the high-profile party political office of National Chairperson of the ANC, she accused members of the DA of being racist. "They must clean up their own house (of racists) and leave the leadership to us,” she said.

Last year alleged corruption surrounding “security upgrades” to President Zuma’s residence at Nkandla formed the platform from which the EFF launched their attack. Now a fresh corruption bomb exploded over Mr Zuma head inside his own party and its governing alliance.

Prominent members of the alliance have launched a campaign at a ANC lekgotla last week to fight the alleged capture of the state by the controversial Gupta-family, who are close friends and allies of Mr Zuma, his family and some cabinet members. (for full report on this matter click here)


While South Africa’s democracy is in deep trouble and going through hard times, all involved in parliament should carefully weigh the consequences of how they behave when parliament gathers on Thursday. They should not behave in a way that further alienates citizens from South Africa’s political structures.

Above all, they should take note of “the ocean of anger” that according to SACP KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary, Themba Mthembu, is even developing among that party’s members.  

It is the responsibility of elected members of parliament of all parties to rebuild the trust of people in the system, although it would not be easy.

They would do well to contemplate the implications of the words of author Randy Pausch, who once said: “No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”

by Steve Whiteman

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