Ferial Haffajee

Something broke last night

2015-02-13 08:34

Ferial Haffajee

The democratic parliament's first Speaker Frene Ginwala was a guest at the State of the Nation address last night. I wondered what she thought as the house fell apart in pandemonium.

The jammed signal to prevent live reporting. The helicopter hovering overhead. A mystery police unit dressed in White Shirts and labelled High Risk.

A Speaker who mechanically went through the motions of democracy to get quickly to what felt like a planned ejection. Heckling members of parliament violently removed by toughs who had clearly rehearsed - their identity still a mystery.

It wasn't meant to be like this.

South Africa's democratic parliament, with the ANC in a large majority, has been a sleepy house until last year when the Economic Freedom Fighters entered its halls.  But it has also been a symbol of a largely peaceful multi-party democracy.

I've always loved the assembly of peoples; the high number of women on the benches and the good-natured jousting of farmer with worker; of majority with minority.

All the colours and ideologies of our rainbow nation. Trite but true.

Its symbolic value to our national democratic consciousness is profound for it says: our country and our democracy works.  We are a country of laws and of law-making.

That stood shattered last night - it was as if something had broken in the 35 minutes of pandemonium. Our founding covenant of peace and peace-making was fractured.

Over the next few days, laws will be displayed by government and parliament's presiding officers showing that it is within those laws to bring in the police to restore order to the parliamentary assembly. But was it wise and what will the impact be?  

And what of the rising police and security state we saw on open display? It is not an overstatement to so label it as signal scrambling to prevent the free flow of information happens in the worst democracies and inevitably are ordered by securocrats. 

The police brought in to remove heckling MP's were not all parliamentary cops; they were tougher than that and looked more like they had an intention to bliksem some members of parliament then to maintain order in the House.

The ANC has wielded its majority with a light hand until last year - yesterday it tightened that grip and showed us how it can exercise power when it feels threatened. 

This wise 103 year old party that has regularly done the right thing for South Africa seems without leaders able to think beyond its own self-interest - that quality has been its greatest political equity but it has been squandered in protection of a single man.

As we emerged last night from an Assembly altered by a surreal display of violence and kragdadigheid, I happened upon a bronze bust of Albertina and Walter Sisulu installed yesterday.

The smiling couple are captured hand in hand at parliament's entry - they are placed like sentinels of the House.

I was glad they were there in art and not in life for it felt as if the legacies of the hero generation was broken last night.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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