The State of the Nation and the general appearance of the President in the National Assembly has always been a time when the country is on its best behavior. It has always been a time where there is a collective pausing to affirm the continuity of our democracy, a continuity expressed in how the different arms of state work together to solve the countries common and most pressing challenges.
Today however whenever the President appears in Parliament, there is a static in the air, an awareness that the country’s mood and disposition is foul and bitter. Our National Assembly has come to reflect a single, seemingly unalterable fact: The country is divided, more divided than any other time in our democratic dispensation.
Across a spectrum of issues, South Africa is divided. Not only do we disagree with one another, we disagree vehemently, with political parties on each side of the divide, each side of the house, unrestrained in the vitriol they hurl at opponents.
The culture of insults and disruptions has metastasize in our body politic as an entire industry, personal, populist and profitable – emerging to dominate television, talk radio and all print media.
Many South Africans have been wistfully recalling days when politicians carried themselves with dignity, a time when politicians disagreed but did it with respect and decorum. Is this all our politics could be? Could our politics be different? Are we able to unshackle our Parliament from distortions, name calling, and sound bites to solutions to complicated problems?
Even this wistful thinking however rapidly disappears the moment opposition selects you as a target, accusing you of corruption, incompetence and moral turpitude.
This month the President Zuma appeared in Parliament for a scheduled Parliamentary appearance to answer questions and the session immediately deteriorated into a Malema vs Zuma tussle, with both parties embroiled in a shouting match which epitomized the race to the bottom that our National Assembly has been on since 2014.
The session was ill-tempered, punctuated with insults‚ with numerous orders for members to withdraw their distasteful comments.
Since the beginning of this session of Parliament, EFF has been accused of “indulging in an orgy of publicity stunts”. In 2015, after yet another Parliamentary chaos, ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa issued a statement saying: “Incidences such as the ones witnessed today are an attack on our democracy and our Constitution which props it up. They are also not sustainable and render the proper functioning of Parliament difficult. Exercising oversight over the executive and representing our people cannot and should not mean enmity and chaos.”
How should Parliament be exercising its duties of holding the executive accountable in the most effective and efficient manner in a world where insults and disruptions will get you into front pages and makes you punch way above your weight.
Parliament is one of the most hallowed symbols of our vibrant democracy. Extremes of opinions and myriad views from every corner of the country converge upon its precincts and find an expression. However, of late the great institution has been characterized by a devaluation of parliamentary authority, falling standards of debates, deterioration in the conduct and quality of Members, poor levels of participation and the like.
Dissent is a critical component of any democracy and, in that light, disruptions could be seen as a part of established parliamentary practice. Frequent parliamentary disruptions however mean low number of effective sittings leading to a decline in legislative activity, budgets getting passed without discussion, urgent bills getting stalled resulting in loss of sitting days and productive business of Parliament.
Let us try to understand the reason why political parties in Opposition, create such logjams by disrupting the Parliament. Whose interests are best served by such disruptions and deadlocks? These attract immediate media and voter attention but thwart the efficient working of the House, thereby discrediting the ruling parties.
On the contrary, participating in a debate requires investment in details of any proposed legislation or discussion, which, due to its serious and complex nature, may not attract media attention, except among parliamentary record keepers or academics.
At the core of the rise in disruptions, whether in Parliament or in state legislatures, is the belief among the parties and their legislators that their interest is better served by disruptions than debates. This is in marked contrast to the behavior exhibited by most of the other functioning democracies.
However, the Government too cannot escape responsibility for these deadlocks and is to be partially blamed because of its apparent inability to manage the floor, or to build consensus across parties on policy issues.
The Idea that over the last 3 years, the National Assembly has been brought to a complete stand-still for Nkandla, Guptas, State Capture, and the committees have been dealing with SOE’s in the main, things that are important but are almost esoteric and above many residents whose immediate needs are hunger, homelessness, employment and safety is a huge let down. But the things that interest the poor usually do not interest the Media, so that our MP’s have become beholden, not to the members of the public but to special interest, funders, and the pursuit of Media coverage.
If members of Parliament are elected to represent the people of this country. If they are elected to be the voice of the people, then they are not listening.
The role of Parliament remains one of promotion of the values of human dignity, equality, non-racialism, non-sexism and what our Parliament has been doing lately is far from it.
Yonela Diko is a Media Strategist & Communication Consultant