South Africa: sliding toward authoritarianism?

Posted on March 9, 2015


(Produced for the March edition of Zambia’s Bulletin & Record)

South Africa’s teflon president Jacob Zuma, was at it again in February, slipping away from responsibility after the State of the Nation Address debacle in parliament. Within hours he had distanced himself from any knowledge of the jamming of digital signals that curtailed media reports and from the subsequent melee when an armed, plain clothed, security detachment dragged, punched and kicked Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) MPs from the House.

The millions watching the live television broadcast were spared the sight of the clash between EFF members and security, headed by a senior police official, Captain Walter Prins. Despite requests from media houses over the years to broadcast their own coverage, the only cameras allowed into the national assembly are controlled by parliament and they ignored the punch-up in favour to focussing on the Speaker, Baleka Mbete and her deputy, the National Council of Provinces chair, Thandi Modise. However, mobile phones and other devices held by journalists, parliamentarians, ambassadors and other guests captured some of what occurred.

The fracas began after the proceedings were delayed for more than an hour because of the jamming of the digital signal. Journalists who turned up early to prepare for the address, were the first to find that neither their mobile telephones nor their other digital devices were working. Their protests were initially ignored, but were then taken up by opposition parliamentarians when they entered the chamber. Chants of “Bring back the signal”, a play on the “Pay back the money” chant that disrupted parliament in August last year then reverberated around the chamber.

The money demanded refers to the estimated R260 million spent on upgrades to Zuma’s private homestead at Nkandla in KwaZulu Natal. The public protector found that Zuma and his family had unfairly benefitted from what were called “security upgrades” and included a swimming pool, amphitheatre, cattle enclosure and chicken run. The government has refused to accept the public protector’s finding and instead instituted two of its own inquiries that found that Zuma did not owe any money.

This was much the same as when, in 2013, a planeload of wedding guests from India were allowed to land at the country’s major, Waterkloof, air force base. Zuma expressed surprise that he should have been aware of such happenings. But the wedding party was from the Gupta family who are close associates of the president and his family. Military personnel at the base also said they were told that “Number one” had cleared the arrival.

In the “Guptagate” incident, a scapegoat emerged: Vusi Bruce Koloane, the chief of state protocol in the department of international relations and co-operation. He confessed to having used the president’s name in vain.

In any event, a ministerial inquiry exonerated the president. “The issue of name-dropping in this instance has been established,” said then justice minister Jeff Radebe. Zuma, he assured the country, was not involved, but that his name, and those of the defence and transport ministers, had been used to manipulate events. Koloane was promptly moved to a lesser post and, without public trumpetting, was last year appointed South African ambassador to the Netherlands. “Pay back time,” was a quite common assessment.

After the signal jamming — illegal under the country’s Electronic Communications Act of 2002 — a “top-level inquiry” was announced. However, it soon became obvious that there could be no scapegoat available for the jamming, since only the national security services could conduct such an operation and then only under the direction of the minister of security services and the president himself. And so the next excuse was trotted out: a “technical glitch” had occurred. Human agency could therefore be discounted.

This is a probably impossible position to maintain. Because, in the midst of MPs on the floor and journalists in the Press gallery waving their digital devices and calling for the return of the signal, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was seen to pass a note to security minister David Mhlobo and, shortly thereafter, the signal returned.

It was then, as Zuma began his State of the Nation Address, that, one after another, three EFF MPs intervened to demand that Zuma first answer the question: When will you pay back the money owed for Nkandla? Speaker Mbete, who is also chair of the governing ANC, was visibly furious. The government had also made it plain that, if the EFF carried out their threat to disrupt the address, they would be “dealt with”. Mbete then ordered the offending MPs to leave the House. When they refused, she ordered “security” to remove the 20 EFF parliamentarians present.

It was a scene never before seen in the South African parliament. In a clearly well planned operation, burly men in white shirts and black trousers — “They looked like a bunch of waiters,” remarked one journalist — several of them with pistols on their belts, swarmed over the EFF benches. Hair was pulled, blows exchanged and one female EFF member was hospitalised.

While ANC members applauded and jeered, the opposition expressed horror. Opposition leader, Musi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance (DA) demanded to know who the security people were. Were they police and, if so, how could this be justified? Eventually Thandi Modise conceded that police had been involved and the DA, along with MPs from United Democratic Front, Congress of the People and the Agang party’s sole representative, walked out.

Within days, Mbete had added more fuel to the fires of discontent, referring, at an ANC rally, to EFF leader Julius Malema as a “cockroach” and saying that it was time to fight the EFF. They were in league with “Western interests” attempting to take over the country. ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa tried vainly to defuse this by stressing that Mbete was commenting, not as the Speaker of parliament, but as chair of the ANC and that the cockroach reference was not meant literally. EFF policy commissar and effective deputy leader of the party, Floyd Shivambu, then added further fuel, threatening that the next time the EFF came to parliament they would be “armed”.

No matter what transpires over the coming weeks and months, the country will not be the same again as myths have started evaporating and illusions have been shattered. A growing number of commentators are also agreeing with what this column has said in the past: that a state of emergency may yet be on the cards as an increasingly authoritarian ANC cracks down on dissent.

Posted in: Reports abroad