Democracy in Disarray

The chaos in South Africa’s Parliament on Feb. 12—the expulsion of one party and the walkout of a number of others during President Jacob Zuma’s annual State of the Nation address—was arguably the worst moment in the history of South Africa’s legislature. The spectacle was rooted in deep discontent with the president and the ruling African National Congress.

The left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters, an emerging political rival to the A.N.C., vowed to use the address to challenge Mr. Zuma on the use of $20 million in public funds to renovate his private home at Nkandla, Kwazulu Natal Province. Zuma has refused to respond to opposition questions about the scandal and ignored E.F.F.’s call to “Pay back the money!”

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Just before Zuma’s address, a number of parliamentarians from E.F.F. and Democratic Alliance—a center-right party and the official opposition—were harassed, arrested and then released. Riot police with water-cannons were deployed outside Parliament to deal with possible protesters, and cell phones within the building were temporarily jammed.

Even before Zuma could begin, E.F.F. members interjected as promised. After a few minutes, the speaker of the house ordered parliamentary security, augmented by armed plainclothes police, to expel the 25 E.F.F. members. They were dragged out, some of them sustaining minor injuries in the process.

The D.A. immediately challenged the speaker’s actions, charging that it was a violation of Parliament to use armed police in what is a “gun-free zone.” When no satisfactory response came from the speaker, the D.A. walked out, followed by a number of smaller opposition parties. In effect, 30 percent of South Africa’s Parliament had left or been ejected.

Throughout this process President Zuma barely reacted, apart from giggling. He made no mention of the incident in his speech, apparently unconcerned that in effect the State of the Nation address had become a presidential pep-talk to his own party.

The illegality of E.F.F.’s initial actions notwithstanding, this incident reflects the grave divisions in South African politics. On a symbolic level, the two major parties that walked out represented sections of South African society that already feel marginalized. The Democratic Alliance represents mainly white voters and the middle class as well as sections of the business community not affiliated with the ruling A.N.C. and its so-called “patriotic” elite. (In this usage, “patriotic” suggests unreserved support for the A.N.C., not love of country or support for the constitution, the rule of law and the Bill of Rights.)

The E.F.F. claims to speak for the increasingly radicalized under- or unemployed urban poor, who have not benefited from almost 21 years of A.N.C. rule and who have decided they will no longer rely on Zuma’s increasingly hollow promises. It’s an unlikely alliance by any estimation—a party dedicated to Obama-style social market capitalism and a socialist movement that offers few clear policies other than wealth redistribution.

What united them on Feb. 12 was disgust at the high-handed and self-serving practices of the A.N.C. and Jacob Zuma. In the aftermath of the address, the D.A. parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, has described President Zuma as a disgrace to the office and called for his dismissal.

This will almost certainly not happen. Holding 63 percent of the seats in the House, the A.N.C. can block any such attempt. The party leadership will also not remove him—unless they think ordinary voters will turn against the A.N.C. at the next election.

Though the majority of A.N.C. supporters do not seem to care about Mr. Zuma’s possible misdeeds or the breakdown in Parliament or—fearing in some cases for their welfare grants—feel they cannot do anything about it, many former A.N.C. supporters, and even a few A.N.C. members, agree with the opposition’s analysis. They see the ruling party as a corrupt organization dedicated to its own enrichment, willing to flout the rule of law and use organs of state for its own purposes.

Noting the use of riot police outside Parliament, armed police within and the attempts to block cell-phone communication during the address, many are concerned that South African democracy is heading toward a police state. They fear that this, not the conditions depicted in President Zuma’s speech, is the real state of the nation.

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