The snotklap that Parliament received from its support staff this week should be a wake-up call for the institution’s bosses.
Although the unprotected strike was about performance bonuses, hundreds of protesting staff members who disrupted Parliament throughout the week were also attempting to reclaim their space.
Although they took their protest too far by overpowering committees, it was a defiant act against a new culture that has been sweeping through the precinct. This new order has been characterised by creeping paranoia and a chipping away of the multiparty democratic space that has been celebrated since 1994.
Spurred on by the #FeesMustFall protests, the unprecedented standoff by staff has been building up for some time.
Staff members have been mumbling about the consequences of a regime change in the fifth democratic Parliament.
The arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which have punched above their 6% weight, changed everything. This coincided with the death of Parliament secretary Michael Coetzee – a democrat who had earned the respect of all parties – and the arrival of Gengezi Mgidlana.
Granted, the troubled institution has been in an invidious position. It has battled to maintain order, is forced to constantly put out fires and fight many battles as its policies have been rudely rubbished.
Unable to manage the disruptive newcomer party and under increasing pressure from the ANC majority, Parliament’s leaders have been on the defensive, administering the institution with a firmer hand and a different intent.
The securitisation at Parliament has caused deep rifts. Staff members are increasingly reluctant to interact with journalists for fear of reprisals, and amid warnings that their social media and chat lines were being monitored.
But Moira Levy, a content manager in the communications service who was once an active member of the ANC, spoke out against the new security vetting procedure imposed on staff by the State Security Agency in an article in the Mail & Guardian. “I was employed to serve Parliament, not the ruling party … My job is to inform citizens about what their Parliament is doing, not keep information from them,” she wrote, prompting a warning from Parliament – via the media – that she could face disciplinary consequences for speaking out.
This week there was a seismic shift in the atmosphere as staff broke ranks and rebelled en masse. For once, it was not the whining DA or the unruly EFF that were the opstokers. The agitation was from Nehawu members in the ANC’s ranks.
As staff occupied Parliament and interacted precariously with riot police through the week, the message was plain and simple: watch out.
* This article first appeared in various Media 24 titles on 24 and 25 October 2015