The pressure on President Jacob Zuma remains intense as South Africa as he enters the last two years of his tenure ahead of general elections in 2019. Accusations of corruption, economic downturn and an increasing heated secession battle within the African National Congress (ANC) have all combined to keep the spotlight on Zuma’s performance.
One of the president’s most vociferous opponents is Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Although Malema rose to political prominence as the leader of the ANC Youth League, he subsequently fell out with Zuma and was expelled from the ruling party. In opposition, he has effectively utilised populist strategies and political grandstanding to capture the headlines – if not always the votes – much to the chagrin of the ANC establishment.
Among the tactics used by the EFF, one of the most high profile has been to use its presence within parliament – where it holds 25 seats – to frustrate and anger the president by interrupting him during his legislative addresses. In the past, this has led to confrontations between EFF and ANC legislators on the floor of the house, and the forced removal of opposition MPs who refuse to back down.
In turn, these developments have positioned the National Assembly as a key battleground in contemporary South African politics in the in more ways that one. The political atmosphere within parliament deteriorated further on Thursday 9 February, as EFF leaders fired so many questions and challenges at President Zuma that he was forced to halt his keynote address, with Malema charging that he was “rotten to the core”.
When Speaker Baleka Mbete ordered EFF MPs to leave, scuffles broke out on the floor of the house as legislative security officials – dressed in white – sought to physically remove EFF leaders, dressed in red. The extent of the disruption, combined with the striking colour coordination of the two sides, has ensured that the episode, which was broadcast live across the country, has captured headlines worldwide.
While many aspects of the confrontation repeated previous incidents, there were also worrying signs of escalation. According to Reuters journalists, the scuffles continued into the parliamentary precinct – the first time that this has been reported. At the same time, police fired stun grenades to disperse rival groups of ANC and EFF supporters that had gathered outside of the building.
Perhaps more problematically, anticipating opposition Zuma had earlier authorised 400 soldiers to join the security team outside of the building, leading to accusations that he was militarizing parliament. This decision united opposition parties in condemnation, with the Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, announcing that his party would seek a court ruling to ascertain whether the president had acted illegally.
More broadly, the willingness of the ANC to bring the security forces in to a political dispute has generated further concern about the party’s commitment to open and transparent politics in the run up to what are likely to be the most challenging general elections it has had to contest since 1994.