We can’t allow a police state

2015-02-15 15:00

On Thursday night, after unprecedented chaos and violence at the opening of Parliament, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe told South Africans through the media that this was a constitutional country and not a police state.

It was a statement at odds with the events of the day, but one that was needed to reassure people.

Indeed, President Jacob Zuma’s second state of the nation address (Sona) in his second term was a massive flop, despite his relaxed posture and his choice to continue reading his speech to an almost half-empty National Assembly.

Last week President Zuma told editors he was not worried about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) threatening to disrupt Sona – but the unprecedented number of security staff, MPs, guests and the media who were subjected to what unfolded told a different tale. It was a tale of fear and paranoia, and not of a confident, democratic and constitutional state.

Anyone going to Sona felt the mood right from the outside of Parliament. A few DA supporters carrying placards were the first to feel the wrath. They were bundled over and roughed up in a manner they had not expected and which was disproportionate to their actions.

Media who had received accreditation for the event were told there was an extra layer of accreditation for those going inside the National Assembly, and many were left out. Helicopters flew over the area in an act not designed to showcase our aerial prowess, but to intimidate.

And those who went inside were shocked to experience their cellphones could not make contact with the outside world. Journalists tried to protest, but were ignored.

It became clear the signals were deliberately being jammed when they were switched back on after the opposition stood their ground, insisting that proceedings could not start until cellphone reception was restored. This happened after consultation between the Speaker, Parliament secretary Gengezi Mgidlana and unknown political seniors.

Another unexplained occurrence on the night was the emergence of hitherto unknown security people, who took pleasure in assaulting and violently removing EFF members from the House. The assault on female MPs was particularly vicious.

But worse than the assault on them and the institution itself were the co-presiding officers, Baleka Mbete and Thandi Modise, claiming they had no idea who the security staff were and whether they were policemen.

How could that be? Cumulatively, all these incidents pointed to exactly the police state Radebe claimed we were not.

On Thursday, for all intents and purposes, we became a police state. The state’s behaviour had all the hallmarks of a government and Parliament that had given up on democracy and its basic tenets.

In fact, no less a person than the president said so himself on Friday morning, bemoaning that South Africans were getting away with a lot of behaviour that would not be countenanced “in other countries”.

We believe Parliament and the South African government owe the population answers about the police state that was introduced on Thursday.

We want answers as to who authorised the jamming of the phone signal. Who were the security people in white shirts the presiding officers professed ignorance of? The obfuscation and feigned ignorance point to a possible ploy to fob off questions in the hope that the matter will go away. But this must not happen. Heads must roll if there is no proper accountability.

If this does not happen, we will have a state of impunity within a police state. It is also worth noting the scandal of Nkandla – the spending of R246?million on the president’s private residence – has in effect been wiped from the public agenda. It is now buried under a new set of massive inquiries about what happened at Parliament on Thursday night.

Whenever the president now speaks on Nkandla, he says he is owed an apology for the false accusations against him, forgetting Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found he indeed benefited unduly and should pay back some of the money.

The police state is nearly always found in countries that protect corruption, in service of ruling elites.

Perhaps that is what is happening here.

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