13/02/2017 17:59 SAST | Updated 14/02/2017 11:12 SAST

A Parliament Defiled, Assaulted And Violated: Why We Should Be Worried

The debate on President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation Address starts at 2pm on Tuesday. It's sure to be a humdinger.


Parliament has been defiled, assaulted and violated. And now it has to host the debate on the State of the Nation Address (Sona) that President Jacob Zuma delivered last week.

"Yes, we should be worried about the functioning of the legislature," says political analyst Ralph Mathekga. "Robust debate in the legislature is good and necessary, but surely there must be a line which we must not cross?"

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Security personnel remove Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP out of Parliament during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on February 09, 2017.

Professor Pierre de Vos, constitutional expert at the University of Cape Town, says Parliament has "actually" not done too badly, considering its natural contraints. "Given the political dynamic, internal party dynamics and how our politics is structured it's actually impossible for the institution to do its constitutionally mandated job."

"Well, actually, Parliament has been captured," says Mabine Seabe, spokesperson for the Leader of the Opposition, Mmusi Maimane, a Democratic Alliance (DA) MP. "Speaker Baleka Mbete is only there to shield Zuma and the executive from accountability."

The debate on Zuma's address starts at 2pm on Tuesday with Maimane's reply, and will culminate in Zuma's response at 3pm on Thursday.

Thursday's events, when Zuma was prevented from addressing a joint session of Parliament for almost 80 minutes — the length of a rugby match — illustrated exactly to what degree he has lost the authority to lead. He still is a legitimately elected head of state, only Parliament can eject him, but he most certainly has lost the respect of the opposition and the broad moral authority to pontificate to the country.

For our democracy to work there needs to be a certain minimum level of mutual respect and recognition of authority between government and the opposition. Government needs to understand that the role of the opposition is one that is borne out of loyalty to the Constitution and country, and the opposition must respect the fact that government has the mandate handed to it at the ballot box.

Nelson Mandela recognised the role of the leader of the opposition and told Tony Leon, his opposite number in the National Assembly, that he had one of the most important roles in democracy which was to hold the government and majority party to account. Mandela famously offered Leon a Cabinet position, but Leon declined saying he believed good opposition would serve democracy better. Mandela praised him for it.

When Thabo Mbeki became president in 1999 there was a brief flickering of hope that relations between the constitutionally recognised offices of president and leader of the opposition would remain cordial. But that hope evaporated in the face of Mbeki's intransigence and Leon's combativeness — Mbeki hosted Leon for a private meeting only once the latter had decided to pack it all in.

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President Jacob Zuma during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) at Parliament on February 09, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Kgalema Motlanthe, who served as president for eight months, was acutely aware of the role of the opposition and always sought to give it due recognition during parliamentary debates, conceding where he had erred or where his government had failed. This was also apparent during his deputy presidency, when he was loath to adopt his line manager's dismissive and derogatory attitude towards the elected MPs opposite the government benches.

Zuma and his African National Congress (ANC) have always treated the legislature with disdain. The ANC's caucus in Parliament has by and large sought to stifle oversight and accountability of the executive, most notably with the Public Protector's Nkandla investigation, for which the Constitutional Court has severely rebuked the legislature.

Even though there are some pockets of functionality, if not excellence, in Parliament (like the justice committee) the legislature has under Speaker Baleka Mbete struggled to equal the judiciary in giving effect to its constitutional mandate. Mbete has over the years often and repeatedly shielded the executive from opposition scrutiny, fomenting bitterness and cultivating a hard line in the opposition benches.

When the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) arrived in Parliament in 2014, it sought to upend the conventions, tradition and decorum which has by and large guided the National Assembly since the advent of democracy. Its brash style of challenging the speaker, the president and anybody opposed to its brand of "radicalism" initially shook up the dour corridors of Parliament, but soon grew stale and counterproductive — to such a degree that the EFF has lost a great deal of public sympathy over the last 18 months.

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Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng during the State of the Nation Address.

Thursday's unbridled chaos in a chamber meant to espouse South Africa's journey to become a unified nation, symbolic of the democratic consensus reached after centuries of conflict and oppression, was a dark, dark moment in our history. The debate on Zuma's address is supposed to focus on policy and change. It's supposed to be an opportunity for the opposition to contribute to government and its thinking, and for the government to win over the opposition by sheer weight of logic and reason.

"I fear that attitudes have hardened and that extremist positions these days show some measure of success. Consensus means to yield to the other side, to concede points of your own and we're not seeing that anymore. Democracy is under pressure because the system seems unable to handle conflict of this nature," says Mathekga.

"Where will it end? Because it's sure to extend beyond the current president and leadership."

Maimane, and other opposition leaders, will attack Zuma and blame the degradation of Parliament on him and the governing party. But we'll have to move beyond that. The next three days will tell us if politicians are able to do so.