​Jerry Springer-esque Parliament standoffs essential in strengthening democracy

On the morning after Thursday night’s State of the Nation address my Uber driver remarked: “I am an ANC supporter. But someone needs to hold the them accountable.
This dilly-dallying and anti-democratic back and forth courtesy of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is hampering that process. Let the ANC account.”

“A true democracy is premised on active engagement and not senseless radicalism,” he said.

Despite my reference to election results of the last few years that have seen the ANC drop from 65.90% in 2009 to 62.15% in 2014 and subsequently losing key metros in the 2016 local elections, the bashing of the behaviour of opposition parties, particularly the EFF, continued.

“Where have you seen such behaviour in Parliament? The EFF is a disgrace and a potential deterrence to complete emancipation.

“What is the difference between people shouting “Jerry Jerry Jerry” in that American TV show and the EFF shouting ‘Zuptas must fall … Pay back the money’? Nothing,” was his parting shot as I exited the car.

His opinion is certainly not unique; many South Africans have lamented the disruptions caused by particularly the EFF in Parliament since the party’s formation in 2013.

Whilst some were anticipating the brawl that took place on Thursday evening in Parliament and perhaps returned to their normal TV schedule, once the actual address got under way, equally some people were expressing their annoyance stating that the EFF should wait for the debate on the president’s State of the Nation address that is coming up.

There is an element of wishful thinking in believing in that the debate will go on uninterrupted given Thursday’s events. If anything one would expect that the reeling opposition parties will come out all guns blazing.

A back and forth ensues, the EFF is asked to leave, men in white shirts enter the house, pandemonium, we citizens lament the blockbuster that is our Parliament and so the cycle continues.

Perhaps it is worth pointing that the brawls that spew in our Parliament are not exceptional to South Africa and we should not dub our Parliament as “failing” just yet.

Parliament brawls of greater proportions happen around the world, and this is not to warrant these brawls but they are not worth throwing the baby out of the bathwater over, – in this case the strength or legitimacy of our democracy.

In 2014 a fistfight that included insults and the tearing apart of parliament equipment broke out in the Georgian Parliament when Akaki Bobokhidze insulted, in an address, opposition MPs.

Similarly, in Argentina, violence erupted when Gracielo Camano slapped another MP due to a disagreement on the budget in parliament. Perhaps, an example that tops the rest is having an MP firing an AK-47 in parliament in Jordan.

The above examples are of course not an attempt to normalise what is in fact a contravention of the laws of the South African Parliament that state MPs may not engage in grossly behaviour such as “using or threatening violence against a member or other person” and “deliberately creating serious disorder or disruption”.

The examples are merely a heuristic device that indicates that it is too early to rule out our young democracy and although the dealings of Parliament are unorthodox our democracy is safe and maturing.

A key tenet of a democracy is antagonism in the form of opposition parties. For years analysts have pinned down the ANC’s dominance to the nonexistence of a strong opposition party. That is no longer the case.

The emergence of the EFF in conjunction with the increase from 16.66% in 2009 to 22.23% in 2014 in the national elections, and the winning of key metros in 2016 by the DA suggest the existence a sustained threat to the ANC’s stranglehold.

Not only has the perceived null and void democracy ensured the ANC lose their two-thirds majority haul but it has allowed for the direct criticism of the ruling party.

In essence, what we have witnessed in Parliament in the last few years is not the death of democracy and active engagement as the Uber driver suggested, but the dialectics of key existing differences in our democracy.

And what we are witnessing in terms of election results is not the decline of the ANC but a sign of a maturing and healthy democracy.

Of course, this is not to suggest that violence in the form of Parliament brawls is a sufficient democratisation tool nor am I suggesting that it is a necessary one but it is a perfect indication of the multiplicity of views that exist in our Parliament and that is essential for our democracy.



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