from Africa in Transition

Parliamentary Brawls Threaten South African Governance

February 16, 2017

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Since 1994, South Africa’s constitutional institutions have strengthened, as has the independence of the judiciary, which now regularly rules against an increasingly discredited Zuma administration. The political parties are becoming more competitive, even as the country regularly holds credible elections. Corruption, especially in the inner circle of President Jacob Zuma and among his allies in the African National Congress (ANC), has probably increased, but it is challenged by the country’s free press and vociferous civil society. However, the parliamentary escapades of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) threatens the strength of South Africa’s parliament, one of the country’s most important institutions.

Led by Julius Malema, once head of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), the EFF has challenged the way that South Africa’s parliament functions. Malema and the EFF, still small but now the third largest party in parliament, view President Zuma as disqualified to serve as the country’s chief of state in the aftermath of court rulings related to presidential corruption. Indeed, EFF and Malema’s hatred of Zuma and his close associates appears almost visceral. (After a dispute, Zuma expelled Malema from the ANC.) Accordingly, the EFF has conducted demonstrations, some akin to riots, on the floor of parliament over the past two years. The Zuma administration’s response has been to tighten security in the parliamentary precincts to such an extent that the opposition parties complain about intimidation. But, it cannot control the behavior of EFF members of parliament on the floor.

President Zuma delivered his annual State of the Nation Address to parliament on February 9. Once again the EFF disrupted the proceedings, the speaker, Baleka Mbete, could not control it and eventually she called in the security services to eject the protesting EFF members, who resisted. The South African parliament broke into a brawl. At that point, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) withdrew in protest of the methods the security services were using. In the end, Zuma delivered his address—usually one of the most important on the parliamentary calendar—to those who remained, almost all of whom were members of the ANC.

Some South Africans approve of EFF disruptions when the focus is on the highly unpopular President Zuma. But, that focus can change in ways that are unpredictable. We should anticipate that there will be more and more disruptive episodes on the floor of parliament, at least until the ANC party leadership contest in December, which may lead to Zuma’s departure. In the meantime, Speaker Mbete’s seemingly ineptness has seriously damaged her candidacy to succeed Zuma and become the first female leader of the ANC and likely chief of state.

The progressive breakdown of parliamentary decorum may have lasting consequences. Once the downward spiral starts, it is hard to stop. Further, continued and possibly accelerating disruption of parliament carries the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the institution among people at large. Indeed, we Americans have seen a progressive decline in popular respect for the Congress as it has become more blatantly partisan and seemingly deadlocked while issues of importance go unaddressed.