An annual event filled with pomp, protocol and a charming ceremonial appeal devolved into chaos on Thursday evening, as members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were forcibly removed from the National Assembly for disrupting President Jacob Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation Address. Journalists and broadcasters watched in shock and horror, as EFF leader Julius Malema and speaker Baleka Mbete clashed over the rules of the house, after his party’s members demanded that Zuma answer when he would pay back the money spent on his Nkandla homestead.
While the event was built up as being dangerously close to breaking out in protests from the EFF, predictions came true. Even before the event began in full swing, journalists were enraged inside chambers because of an apparent jamming of their mobile signals; preventing them from tweeting and relaying messages to the outside.
As Zuma took to the podium, the EFF rolled out what it had warned the African National Congress majority government of: that they would disrupt the President’s speech to coerce him into answering their months’ old question.
In the process of the EFF’s incessant raising of points of order and privilege, Speaker Baleka Mbete threatened to evict the party’s leader Julius Malema from the house. After refusing to cease his questioning, Mbete called in supposed Parliamentary Security officials.
But according to some present, some of the security officials called in were, in fact, police officers. The presence of police officials within the walls of Parliament is unorthodox and previously unheard of. Speaking to journalists on the steps of the National Assembly, Malema said seven EFF members were injured and a female member had been physically assaulted by seven policemen. She had to be rushed to hospital. The party is consulting its lawyers on further action.
Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said they wanted answers as to whether the security officials were in fact policemen.
“The deployment of police officers into the National Assembly violates the rights of South Africans who voted for us [Mps] to be her to represent their views. Parliament is a space where we discuss and debate, regardless of what takes place there, police officers are not allowed to enter that sacrosanct place,” said Maimane after the entire DA contingency turned about and exited the National Assembly even before President Jacob Zuma began his address.
Maimane said the Speaker’s ejection of the EFF MP’s was a “breakdown of the democracy”. Opposition party members felt the Speaker gave an unsatisfactory answer to a question by the DA, amounting to her denying knowledge of police officers among the security officials but also claiming to not know which individuals were police officers.
Later, after the President’s speech had been completed, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe briefed the media on the night’s events. He said the Presidency was disappointed by the behaviour of some members of Parliament, who instigated the reaction by security officials.
“Members of Parliament, whether they are with the opposition or the majority, they must work together because they are public representatives. But in the end majority prevails, that’s the nature of democracy,” he said, in response to a question that ANC members were being protected.
“They were not called there by the speaker, not to protect the majority but to restore order.”
Journalists described the turn of events as “unprecedented” and “watershed” for South Africa’s democracy. Others said it was a “sad day” for South Africa. VOC (Andriques Che Petersen)