Now that the heat has subsided, the punches thrown, and sensitive parts of the anatomy squeezed, let’s take another look at Thursday February 9 2017, another day of ignominy inside the South African parliament.
Let’s go behind the outrage of the opposition and dire warnings of a constitutional crisis. Let’s forego for a moment the varied interpretations of the presidential giggle or even trying to read the mind of the previous president, so ingloriously removed from office, as he looked down – physically and otherwise – on the raucous proceedings beneath him.
Let’s even forget this parade of feathers where the peacocks strut out with their spouses dripping in ostentatious wealth just ahead of a ritualised speech on the redemption of the poor; here surely is a target for decolonisation.
But put those concerns aside for the moment and let’s take another look.
I have yet to read or meet progressive minds who do not applaud the chaos, interruption and disruption of the President’s State of the Nation address.
What I hear is that Jacob Zuma deserved it. The Head of State, by which ascription the Speaker tried to rein in the honourable members, brought the malaise upon himself. This is what happens when an utterly corrupt and contemptuous leader fails to step down. After all, the Constitutional Court, no less, found that the president had failed to uphold the laws of the land.
We are in this mess because of Number One and therefore the opposition, especially the red-overalled ones, are completely within their rights not to allow an illegitimate president to address the nation.
Someone even staged an alternative Sona, as this annual ritual of presidential promises and governmental self-congratulation has come to be called.
Students of political theory make useful distinctions between individuals and institutions, between the president and the presidency, and between laws and norms. As does Jonathan Rauch in his brilliant essay titled “Containing Trump” in The Atlantic of March 2017 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/containing-trump/513854/).
What threatens the norms of democracy, he argues, is not so much what the president does – whatever terms of disgust and disgrace might be attached to those actions – but how civil society responds. For in the response of the opposition it does exactly what it accuses the president and his party of doing – eroding the authority of parliament; disregarding norms of civility and public decency; physically abusing security; and not treating public office with dignity.
Does anyone really think that after these bouts of insult, intemperance and intolerance will simply evaporate if and when the president walks?
Remember, some of these same voices of righteous anger were responsible for the unseemly spectacle that became the removal of another flawed president whom, thankfully, left graciously thereby avoiding a messy standoff with unthinkable consequences.
What is being embedded in the new norms of parliamentary behaviour is that South Africa’s legislature – poorly modelled on the British colonial parliamentary tradition – will now become a permanent place of bluster, bigotry and brawling where the authority of the Speaker – any Speaker – is dispensable.
In that sense, the president and his party have succeeded in dragging down the opposition to the same level of incivility, discourtesy and legal disregard afflicting the nation. Nor should we think that this publicised display of incivility does not influence how ordinary citizens relate to each other on matters of difference.
Parliament should not reflect society, in this case; it should model for society how citizens behave in a democracy. What could these representatives of the people possibly say to Pirates fans swarming onto an active soccer field barely days after the bust-up in parliament? Or to communities burning schools and libraries? Or to Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University students who just a few days ago petrol-bombed another university building?
Nothing. They have no grounds to claim moral voice in the face of such wanton behaviour.
Too late, though, the repeated spectacle of parliamentary confrontations with bodies climbing into each other is watched in real time across the country (and around the world, by the way). A model is set. A behaviour is sanctioned. And new norms for how to deal with differences are being embedded in public culture for years to come.
What the opposition has not figured out is how to win. They might not have noticed that the president is tone deaf to criticism and his party complicit in his defence. Engaging in routines of protest and outrage whenever the president comes to parliament achieves nothing.
What the terms of opposition does accomplish, however, is to contribute to an antidemocratic culture and the subversion of a fragile institution long after Jacob Zuma retires to his home in Nkandla.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and is currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US