Make no mistake, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) came to parliament on Thursday evening with one goal in mind: to be violently ejected out of the National Assembly by the infamous white shirts. And that is precisely what they got.
From the moment President Jacob Zuma stepped inside the chamber, he was heckled and repeatedly interrupted by the EFF Members of Parliament. They tag-teamed their points of order and interjections, starting with Floyd Shivambu, who held up a cable tie and claimed that South African Police Service personnel were in the chamber to use it against unruly MPs. When he sat down, another stood up and offered another interjection. The evening started on a high boil, and got hotter and hotter as it wore on. There was no respite.
Unlike previous years, when EFF MPs like Mbuyiseni Ndlozi pretended to placate and negotiate with the speaker Baleka Mbete, this time they were confrontational and aggressive from the start. The EFF president Julius Malema was incandescent with rage when he stood up, flinging a barrage of insults at Mbete, the chairperson of the National Chamber of Provinces Thandi Modise who sat next to her, and Zuma himself. There was absolutely no doubt that the reds had come into the house to provoke a violent confrontation.
This is the third year in a row that the beginning of the State of the Nation Address (Sona) has been interrupted in this fashion, however this time, everyone came prepared. The EFF were right: the presence of police and what looked like armed personnel was unprecedented. The grounds around parliament looked like something out of a war film.
But who could have anticipated that the Democratic Alliance (DA), usually stringent sticklers for the rules, would attempt a disruption of their own? MPs John Steenhuisen and Michael Waters stood up to request that Parliament stand in silence in remembrance of the 94 people who died at the hands of the Gauteng Department of Health. They were cut short by a speaker who was in no mood for shenanigans.
Eventually the entire DA caucus walked out.
Zuma was accused by several political parties of having been found by the Constitutional Court to have violated his oath of office, and thus being unfit to stand in the house. Malema and several EFF MPs told him. Cope's Mosiuoa Lekota practically yelled the words at him, as did Willie Madisha. And DA leader Mmusi Maimane, in attempting to refocus the attention of the house on "the people's business", said it too.
The EFF managed to force precisely the kind of spectacle they wanted: Zuma delivering a speech to his MPs and a small collection of minor opposition parties.
This is the crux of the matter: bruised, beaten and carried out of the house by thugs, the EFF have nevertheless won.
They have managed to force precisely the kind of spectacle that they wanted: Zuma delivering a speech to his MPs and a small collection of minor opposition parties. Several opposition parties — the DA most crucially — now consider the Sona, for so long an unctuous ceremony of pretentious pomp, as a justifiable opportunity to embarrass a tainted president.
The spectacle and the violence of it all was just a means to an end. The real victory from the perspective of those who were ejected or walked out the National Assembly was the sight on television of a fractured Sona, with Zuma gamely hobbling through his speech while his opponents held their own press conferences outside. Nothing the first citizen was saying inside the chamber meant anything. The convention of responding to the speech by debate is torn up. He is now to be aggressively confronted, humiliated, and forced to hide behind a rather ineffectual army of police and soldiers.
This is the script for every Sona until the African National Congress (ANC) chooses someone else to lead the country. Or until another political party gets a chance to do so. The president will have to call upon even bigger shows of strength from the military and the police, which will prove ineffective once again at silencing the opposition. (Seriously, what was the plan? Have big men show up with big guns in hopes of scaring the EFF into silence? "Just kill me, I don't care," declared Malema as the white shirts stormed in. A martyrdom on the National Assembly floor would have been an unspeakable disaster for the ruling party.)
The EFF will force another confrontation, and the nation will be reminded again what the Constitutional Court said. And when the fighting, cursing and the pepper spray have subsided, Zuma will once again deliver a hollow speech to a hollowed-out house.
Three years ago, the EFF opened the genie bottle in Parliament. There's no putting it back, until Zuma falls.