By Takura Zhangazha*
It is not really the business of outsiders/foreigners to directly comment on how a specific country's Parliament behaves. But the recent violent ejection of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party from the South African parliament left me wincing. Not necessarily at the pain that was evidently being inflicted on the members and security details. But more because of the negative perception of parliamentary democracy that will emerge from the incident.
Especially in Southern Africa given the exemplary nature of South Africa’s democracy as well as its broadly accepted ’big brother’ geo-political role.
So what happens in South Africa’s parliament matters beyond its borders. Especially if it relates to issues of political accountability of government to other institutions that are bound by the democratic principle of the separation of powers.
And South Africa, at least since 1994, has generally been expected and known to be leading from the front on such democratic matters and practices. That its parliament has since the last general election been catching the regional public eye is largely due to the arrival of the EFF and its ability to do the most radical of actions in pursuit of bringing President Zuma’s government to account.
It has earned it plaudits among many a young Southern African, with some even going as far as forming their own versions of the EFF. And of course hoping to ascend to power/parliament in similar fashion, even if their political systems are not like South Africa’s based on proportional representation.
EFF has heckled, sung, mocked authority and been evicted from Parliament in a manner that has been unprecedented in the region. All seen via satellite television and social media across many capitals in the SADC region. Their visibly violent eviction this week was however not entertaining nor inspiring.
The general reactions of such ‘parliamentary violence’ outside of South Africa itself will be many. Among these would be the most obvious one of it all being thoroughly entertaining. Not only in respect to the pre-eviction debate but also the unbelievable spectacle of security guards evicting embers of parliament in such a violent manner. It made for great television for sure. And will be watched over and over again on social media platforms.
A second reaction will be on a partisan basis. Either in support of the ruling ANC or the stubborn opposition EFF. In both cases justification will sought as to who is right in their actions. In this one there are no winners, just continual haggling and waiting for the next appearance of Zuma and the EFF in Cape Town.
The less prevalent reaction would be one of immediate disapproval of both the conduct of the South African Parliament and the EFF. Whichever way one looks at it there should be no fisticuffs in a democratic parliament. Even where we have witnessed some members fight among themselves in Eastern European countries, it is still completely unnecessary that as important a representative space such as the legislature’s chambers become emblematic of how not to solve political differences using violence.
A further but more urgent question is whether this latest incident reflects societal realities or is intended to define them afresh. Seeing political leaders being forcibly removed from parliament on live television is largely going to have the effect of changing the nature of political engagement at grassroots. One can only hope that it does not come to that. But it has been seen by the public.
While the big issues are in relation to South African domestic politics, such as a numerically futile attempt to impeach that country’s current president, there is need for a broader Southern African debate on the democratic effectiveness and democratic value imbuing role of our parliaments. This debate has to answer broader questions as to how organic are our parliaments. Inclusive of answering the question of how organic do they want to be? Or whether the EFF being violently evicted from Parliament is a reflection of societal opinion or just a demonstration of power.
We therefore need to think of our parliaments not just in relation to actual votes and legislative authority. We must try and make them more reflective of our own organic democratic value systems. Not only in relation to their conduct but also in relation to how they reflect our lived cultural realities in our various countries. For example, beyond the legal import of the continued attempt to get Zuma removed from office, to what extent are the actions of the EFF reflective of broader South African public opinion? And how do parliaments also seek to influence public opinion beyond the political parties that have representatives in it?
In the final analysis however we must all agree that a physically fighting parliament is not a good thing for the furtherance of a democratic political culture. We would do well to remember the wise words of Kambarage Julius Nyerere of Tanzania who once opined, 'the mechanisms of democracy are not the meaning of democracy'
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)