President Jacob Zuma and National Speaker Baleka Mbete arrive for the State of the Nation address. (Mike Hutchings, AFP)
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So there we were last Thursday, sitting in the gallery of the National Assembly dressed up for the occasion. Let me just state for the record that my whole outfit (excluding my old pair of shoes) cost R300, which is a far cry from the R70 000 outfit which one of our ministers reportedly bought at Versace.
Of course we always knew that the EFF was going to make trouble. They were openly saying in the days before that they were going to disrupt the speech and would continue to raise points of order until they were thrown out. Their modus operandi was clear: create mayhem and then get thrown out with as much violence as possible to get maximum media attention.
The government and Parliament reacted. The areas in and surrounding Parliament felt far more like a military zone in Gaza than a parliament of the people. There were police and soldiers everywhere. Helicopters hovered overhead and concrete barricades blocked off the roads close to the parliamentary precinct.
Ironically, it was clear to all observers that the threat came from inside and not outside, which made the whole ANC cabinet's response a ‘we-are-still-in-control’ show of force rather than a necessity based on intelligence as they wanted us to believe.
As the week went on the government looked less and less in control. The secretary of Parliament contradicted the presiding officers, who contradicted the presidency, who were contradicted again by some of the ministers in cabinet. Various measures were reversed as the members of the press (who were furious about being told that they had to stay in a media pen and escorted by security everywhere else) robustly questioned many aspects of the militarisation of the event.
On the night itself, after the (very short) “time for prayer and meditation”, the points of order started and went on and on for almost 90 minutes. The EFF and Cope raised their usual points, namely that the president was illegitimate and had no right to deliver the speech. The poor Agang member never got to raise his point before he was thrown out – no one knows exactly why.
The DA wanted a minute of silence to remember the victims of the Esidimeni in Gauteng. Disappointingly, the speaker would not agree and said it would be done at a later stage. Then a shameful interchange happened.
The ANC clearly felt embarrassed that they did not think of it and brought up all kinds of excuses. The DA, instead of raising once more reason why it was important and then gracefully letting it be, could not resist using it as a political football. They made one point of order after the other and waved little black flags. Then they stood up in defiance of the speaker and had their own 30 seconds of silence. The speaker shamefully spoke over it. So the DA got the media attention and the ANC yet again looked cruel and uncaring.
In the meantime the EFF was still working on being thrown out and shortly afterwards they were. The TV images showed clearly that an EFF member threw the first punch and after being removed some members threw bricks at the security staff – one was hit on the side of the head.
Despite having seen the removal of the EFF various times over the last year from the gallery, it is shocking to see this kind of violence in Parliament and this time it went beyond what has happened before. It was thuggery of the worst kind and it was perpetrated by the highest elected officials of the land.
I could not help but glance over at former President Thabo Mbeki who sat in the front row amongst the people. He look horrified and I can just imagine how much this must have pained and shocked him.
A few rows to his left four guests in EFF uniforms suddenly stood up and rushed out. One fell behind and another ran back to hurry him on. The reason became obvious a few seconds later. People started coughing and moving out. Someone had clearly dropped a pepper spray-like substance in the gallery. Ironically, none of the over the top security measures prevented the bringing in of the substance and it caused havoc.
At this point the gentleman next to me received a phone call. He was a state secretary from Germany who was in South Africa with a big delegation to consider trade and investment between the two countries. The call was from his security detail who insisted that he leave immediately for his own safety. He departed and I can only assume so did many potential deals which could have made a big difference in the radical economic transformation that the ANC and, for that matter, the EFF want.
What happened on Thursday was a disgrace and all the bigger parties are to blame for it – every single one. Now of course they are all playing victim, but that is nonsense. They all have to take responsibility for their role in the chaos that erupted.
I only feel sorry for some of the parliamentary security officers. I know a few of them from the post-1994 days when many started to work in Parliament, usually as messengers. They came because they wanted to provide for their families and were starry eyed about the honour of working in Parliament.
Now they are frequently called upon to remove members of that Parliament and in return get punched, kicked and hit with bricks by those same “honourable” members. The ones I know certainly did not sign up for this and it has been reported that many had to receive medical care as well as counselling after the events of Thursday.
And so our members of Parliament have yet again sent a message to the citizens of this country, that observing rules and behaving properly don’t matter and if you can’t get your way, you are free to use foul language and violence.
A brief glance at Twitter showed the disgust that the majority of South Africans felt about what happened. And to those looking on from outside of our borders, the “honourable” members played yet again into the worst possible stereotypes that exist about African parliaments.
When I finally got to bed just before midnight last Thursday, I thought back to the parliament of Madiba and Thabo Mbeki that I was part of. It felt like a different world. Something needs to change urgently.
Members of Parliament need to stop behaving like foul mouthed hooligans and gangsters or else deal with a country that will have no respect for either them or the institution. They must grow up and do what they were elected to do: serve the people of this country! And while they are at it – think about those who have no food to eat while they buy dresses for R70 000!
- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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