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Monday, February 16, 2015

Entering a broken house: what now?

When President Jacob Zuma returns to the National Assembly tomorrow afternoon for a two-day debate about his State of the Nation Address, he will enter a broken house.
Hopefully he will not display indifference, as he did when he giggled on Thursday night after the chaos in the house that delayed his speech by an hour. The powers that be that night played a sinister hand. Their actions left a few MPs injured, #SONA2015 trending globally, many South Africans feeling heartbroken and accusations flying that our 20-year-old democracy was resorting to police state tactics.
Thursday night could have turned out differently if the signal had not been scrambled, if security officers – dressed in white shirts like waiters - had not been ordered in to remove persistent EFF MPs, if the Speaker had not ignored MPs questions on the identity of these shady officers and if Zuma had swallowed his pride and taken a quick question on Nkandla.   
In the protracted build-up to last Thursday, I initially felt some sympathy for Madam Speaker Baleka Mbete. She is tasked with maintaining order and decorum in the house. EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema and his fiery red army are in parliament not to be polite. They are agitators and disrupters, intent on challenging the rules of the house.
Although Mbete has been accused of shielding the president at previous sittings and he has a lot to answer for, SONA was not the time to be the anarchic Joker in the house. This was an annual occasion to address serious challenges in the country. It was one which traditionally has been viewed as a rather “festive, fun and lovely” affair, as journalist Katy Katopodis tweeted nostalgically the morning after.
In the days leading up to the big night, the extraordinary security strategy took shape - in secret. In three separate media briefings, presiding officers scrambled to find words when asked about security arrangements. In particular, when pesky journalists persisted with a straight-forward query - whether or not the Public Order Policing unit (the riot police which removed EFF MP Reneilwe Mashabela on 13 November) would be deployed, parliamentary officials dodged the yes-or-no question.
Then, two hours before Zuma took the podium on Thursday, journalists got their backs up when they discovered that the communication signal had been scrambled, apparently with a jamming device. What followed was a major distraction with pleas and protest - and some reporters tweeting and filing updates from the digitally-enabled toilets.
It was heart-breaking to see efforts by respected parliamentary staff members to intervene come to nothing. Powerless to get the line unscrambled, they looked uncomfortable as they fielded complaints from the media. It was disheartening that objections to the jamming came from opposition benches, not the ANC, a party which had authored the constitution that trumpets the free flow of information. What then transpired after 7pm – with the signal unjammed - has been relayed around the world. It was an hour of mayhem that shamed South Africa.
This week Madam Speaker faces what seems to be a losing battle to pick up the pieces and bring order to the house. There is a backlash from the opposition, calls for her removal and multiple legal steps being taken against creeping censorship and heavy-handed security measures in parliament.
 Tomorrow MPs should be debating serious economic, political and social challenges in the country, some of which Zuma touched on in his speech on Thursday. But these issues have taken a backseat in the dysfunctional house. And South Africans will clear their diaries to watch the show.

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