The morning after riot police stormed the National Assembly to forcibly remove a recalcitrant EFF MP, I joked on twitter that I was considering wearing a flak jacket and takkies to work.
The unprecedented display of force has sent shockwaves through parliament and the country, with threats by the opposition to seek recourse in the courts.
After 10pm on Thursday, members of the Public Order Policing unit - wearing protective gear from head to toe - pushed and shoved opposition MPs in the house. The MPs, who had endured a marathon sitting since 2pm, had intervened as police tried to remove the EFF’s Reneilwe Mashabele, who, dressed in a domestic worker uniform, insisted that President Jacob Zuma was a thief. As parliament descended into chaos, the live parliamentary TV feed was cut.
The warning signs were in fact evident earlier that day, with Public Order Policing unit vans lined up on the precinct outside.
There must be a degree of sympathy for presiding officers who have been battling acts of extreme rudeness lately - all of it triggered by the #paybackthemoney Nkandla saga. But as a reason to haul in the riot squad, it is a shocking disgrace and unbelievably paranoid.
|A visual timeline of the drama as it unfolded, Die Burger|
It makes it harder now to laugh off DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s warning earlier this week – before pandemonium broke out - that there were “rumbling plans to militarise our parliamentary precinct”.
The cracks in South Africa’s hard-fought democratic parliament have been creeping up - insidiously – in the 5th parliament.
There was the incident of August 21 – when police also moved on to parliament. After a tense stand-off, they withdrew from using force to remove protesting EFF MPs. Again, the media were ordered to leave (many refused) and the TV feed was cut.
In the National Council of Provinces a few weeks ago, I was among a number of journalists refused re-entry to the upstairs press gallery while President Jacob Zuma was delivering his 50-minute speech on 20 years of democracy. I was confronted not by parliamentary security, but, it is believed, a member of the Presidential Protection Unit who had taken it upon himself to rule over the house.
Although it was reassuring that parliament issued an unreserved apology and an undertaking to investigate as journalists always have free access to enter and exit the gallery, it was chilling to witness parliamentary officials, whom I had called on to assist, being brusquely over-ruled by the bully-boy security official.
There are other worrying tendencies. The increasing secrecy and attempts at blocking journalists from accessing reports emanating from portfolio committees – the Nkandla ad hoc committee (of course) a case in point. Parliamentary security has tightened, signing-in bureaucracy has been increased, and more police officers have been deployed to parliament.
There are also some trivial incidents. This week, a reporter who has covered parliament for four years was ordered to not drink water – from a parliament-labelled bottle nogal - while sitting in the press gallery upstairs. Minutes later, her colleague was also given an order - to not stand in the gallery (even though he was in nobody’s way).
When I moved into media offices at the parliamentary precinct in May, I walked through the entrance of parliament thinking what a privilege it was to be based at such a deeply-loved institution that has been the symbol of the country’s liberation and democratic principles.
I didn’t feel quite the same way when I walked through the gate on Friday morning.
* A version of this article first appeared in City Press and Rapport on 16 November 2014