The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) took the language of the streets into Parliament with their #PayBackTheMoney chant directed at President Jacob Zuma last week. And when he was unable to answer their questions, they protested.
The ANC did the same with Speaker Baleka Mbete, calling in the cops (who, thankfully, did not storm the legislature) while its members reportedly faced off with the EFF and the party itself made post facto threats of violence.
All the protests in South Africa in the past 10 years – including Marikana and Ficksburg – have left no more than 80 people dead, according to the University of Johannesburg’s Social Change Research Unit.
That was a figure that echoed through the halls of Parliament last Thursday, as did the very real spectre of more state-sanctioned injury and killings as a result of political intolerance by the ruling party and its trigger-happy approach to resolving issues through violent public policing.
If ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe had had his way, according to comments made after that watershed moment in South Africa’s parliamentary history, it certainly would have happened.
As it turned out, it didn’t. But the president renowned for dodging questions, both legal and parliamentary – on issues ranging from corruption charges to the R246 million public spending on his private residence at Nkandla and the network of interests his family have developed since he became president – was given a serious wake-up call. A “morning glory” of an utterly scarier kind.
Zuma scarpered out of Parliament at about 4pm on Thursday with a terse smile masking the rowdy objection to his apparent allergy to answering any questions dealing with direct accountability.
“South Africa knows that the president was here to perform his constitutional duty and was not given an opportunity to finish off, and therefore we would like at this point to adjourn,” said Mbete in an apparently unselfconscious critique of government’s inability to stem the rising tide of (political) myopia in the country.
Mbete had ordered the EFF to leave, but leader Julius Malema et al refused, remaining in their benches while chanting and singing. “Pay back the Money!” reverberating through the national legislature and into the social media feeds and imaginations of the country.
Malema’s own R18-million tax-bill from the South African Revenue Service was, of course, no impediment for a full-scale assault on Zuma for what appears a libeterian-Anarchist refusal to buy into liberal notions like paying taxes..
Meanwhile, the ANC, with its own sense of irony rooted circa 1995 and the release of Alanis Morissette’s hit single, Ironic, issued a statement.
Apparently oblivious to Zuma’s usual response stratagem during Q&A time in the national legislature – obfuscation or hip-swerving around questions as if a mate were in sight and David Attenborough were intoning breathlessly in his ear – the ruling party assumed the mother superior high ground:
“It is quiet clear that the intentions of EFF is not to engage within the framework of promoting public accountability but have an intention of undermining not only the purpose of parliament but to promote anarchy and general disrespect.” [sic]
And while “tea girls” at Harvard must have been getting the cosy off the teapot for a celebratory, cognitively dissonant cuppa, the ruling party thundered out some fighting intolerance:
“The violent nature in which the EFF engages on issues is likely to take South Africa backward. We warn them not to take us back to the past where we will have no option but to defend our hard-won democracy,” the ANC said, apparently causing the Democratic Alliance to order 100 dozen adult nappies, install laser security and extra barb-wire at the security-gated homes of all their MPs and another five dozen cucumber sandwiches in fearful anticipation
Whether the ruling party will continue its Morissette approach to protecting the president is yet unclear. But South Africans should be worried that follow-up albums to the supremely whiny Jagged Little Pill did include Under Rug Swept – never mind the allusion, the latter’s title, alone, an obvious inspiration to the linguistically-challenged ANC PR department. Mind you, the album did contain the number one hit Hands Clean.
Irony, it seemed, was vying with Anarchism in an intellectual parliamentary battle that threatened to draw inspiration from the ANC’s Johnny de Lange’s own Mike Tyson moment in 1998.
First Malema criticised Zuma for deferring any responsibility to respond to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s suggestion that he pay back a “reasonable portion” of the money spent on Nkandla when the president told Parliament that police minister Nkosinathi Nhleko would determine what, if any amount, he owed the taxman – an illegal action according to our Constitutional framework:
“An anarchist in the form of the president says he can only listen to the minister, not the Public Protector in terms of Constitution,” blustered Malema.
Then, the ANC, intellectually buoyed by its mandatory bedtime reading of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What is Property? – which, according to unconfirmed sources in the dodgy bars where The Con drowns its sorrows, has apparently been circulated among members to counter the intellectualism of the EFF’s Andile Mngxitama – responded with similar charges of “anarchism”.
In the battle of anarchism, the EFF, on the surface, seems to be riffing off early Google searches, going back to China and the fourth century philosopher Zhuang Zhou’s timeless observation: “A petty thief is put in jail. A great brigand becomes ruler of a nation.”
But what has followed Thursday’s events is not a mere exchange of accusations of anarchism and the pursuit of the meaning of “irony”.
What has become abundantly clear is that a traditionally supine Parliament will no longer accept a fog of non-answers from members of the executive, especially not from the famously unaccountable Zuma. Even more genteel approaches like the Democratic Alliance’s suck it up, middle-class suburbanite approach to Parliament will have to evolve to remain relevant in a house that will never be the same again.
And, that Thursday’s “#PayBackTheMoney” protest by the EFF may just see the start of a reversal of an erosion of the independence of South Africa’s institutions (the ANC, Parliament, the National Prosecuting Authority et al) after more than five years of being structured with the singular aim of – rather than protecting post-apartheid democracy and its gains – of insulating “Number One” from being held accountable.