The 5th parliamentary term has been unlike any of the others in the last 20 years of bourgeois democratic rule. In the four months since the elections in May, parliament has suddenly become a real focal point of attention.
The public galleries of the "House" have been packed to capacity. The front pages of newspapers have been dominated by news from parliament. The parliamentary satellite television channel has seen a dramatic rise in viewership. Images and videos emanating from the chambers have gone viral. South Africans are eagerly following the debates and news from parliament. And they can't get enough! But what is the meaning of all this? What lies behind the dramatic and intense public interest in parliament?
The last time such an interest was shown for parliamentary proceedings was during the 1994 transitional period when the ANC won the elections and Nelson Mandela became president. But this time is completely different. Gone is the celebratory mood of the Mandela era.
The catalyst behind the current focus on parliament has been the Economic Freedom Fighters. The EFF was launched just six months prior to the general elections in May. Nevertheless, it managed to get more than one million votes and become the third largest party behind the ANC and the Democratic Alliance.
In the subsequent four months the party, which is led by Julius Malema, has been at the centre of focus and debate. No other opposition party in the last two decades has made such a sudden and dramatic entrance onto the political arena.
The first talking-point was the EFF MPs' signature attire of red mineworkers' and domestic workers' uniforms, red berets, hardhats and gumboots. This immediately distinguished them from the formal fashion-house attire of all other parties’ MPs.
When the time came for EFF to finally make their parliamentary debut, newsrooms around the country came to a standstill.
Malema's 20-minute reply to the president's speech, was carried live on television. The EFF leader, who is known for not mincing his words, nor for pulling any punches, immediately launched a stinging criticism on Zuma's presidency.
"Mr President, you tried to speak about radical socio-economic changes in your speech last night but nothing you said was radical; instead we heard a repetition of what has been said before… What is so radical about the Expanded Public Works Programme? What is radical about buying stolen land? Maybe we must give you a few tips on what is radical economic transformation,” Malema said.
"You must be prepared, if you want to advance this agenda of radical economic transformation, to expropriate stolen land without compensation, to nationalise the mines, the banks and other strategic sectors of the economy. You and your party should stop playing semantics, especially when it relates to radical economic agenda, because you lack courage and you have sold out the revolution," he said.
Malema hit out at President Zuma about unemployment. "You promised jobs before and you repeatedly failed to create jobs. This is your legacy - you have doubled unemployment.”
His speech caused raucous in the House. There were numerous altercations between Malema and opposition MPs during his 20-minute speech. On one occasion the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces who was presiding over the session, warned the fiery EFF leader not to refer to factional battles in the ANC.
Malema responded stubbornly: "No! You are not going to tell me, Chair, how I must debate. I can't be told what to say."
The chairperson, a leading ANC member, became visibly agitated and warned: "Honourable Malema, I won’t have the house degenerating into this. Please debate the State of the Nation Address."
“No chair, I don’t agree with that because you can’t tell me how I must debate,” Malema replied.
On another occasion during his speech, Malema refused to retract a statement which blamed the government for the Marikana killings of mineworkers by police in August 2012. "The ANC government massacred the people in Marikana. Those people [police] were representing the ANC. I will not withdraw my statement,” he said.
The chairperson, clearly covering for the ruling party, demanded the following day that Malema retract his statement on the spurious grounds that it was 'against the rules' and 'unparliamentary.'
"The statement made by honourable Malema suggests that the government, which is made up of members of this House, deliberately decided to massacre people. This does not only impute improper motive but also accused them of murder,” the chairperson said. She again demanded that he withdraw the statement.
Malema naturally refused. "If the police reduces crime, you say the ANC has reduced crime. But when we say the ANC kills people, then we are told that we can’t,” he said.
When he again refused to withdraw the statement, the chairperson told him to leave the House. With this, the entire EFF caucus staged a dramatic walkout, singing and chanting their way into the corridor.
By now parliament was firmly in the limelight. In the offices, on the shop floor, in the media, in taxis and on buses, parliament was the number one topic of conversation. Terms like "decorum", "points of order" and "unparliamentary" became part of discussions of working class people. But this was only the beginning.
Over the past three months interest in what is happening in parliament has grown to unheard-of levels. Gone are the days when people only had a casual interest in it or it being a place where middle-aged MPs took a nap during proceedings. There was even a joke going around when the actors of the most-watched TV soap opera in the country went on strike, that the high drama and tension in parliament was an adequate substitute.
This was the new order of things in parliament. The EFF was now the source of heated discussion and robust debate. Malema made his intentions clear from the start.
"I'm not here for rules of Parliament. I’m here for a revolution,” he told journalists at Parliament. “We are not going to sit back and allow a situation where a revolution is undermined in the name of rules."
The EFF leader said his party would not follow parliamentary rules “created by colonialists and imperialists”, referring to the British parliamentary system.
Things did not tone down from this. On the contrary! There were even bigger upheavals ahead. The biggest so far were the events of 21 August which were unprecedented in the history of parliament.
It was questions-and-answers time where MPs could directly ask questions to the executive, starting with the president himself. As usual, there was huge public interest in the session. Coverage in the media was once again widespread.
When the turn of the EFF came, Malema turned to the "Nkandla scandal", which involved R246 million of taxpayers’ money for the building of Zuma's massive palace in Kwa-Zulu Natal. This is one of a string of scandals blighting Zuma's presidency. Situated in one of the poorest areas of South Africa it is a clear reflection of South African society which is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Even worse is Zuma's arrogance when he tried to justify this open theft by claiming that the government funded visitors’ centre, cattle kraal, chicken run, swimming pool and amphitheatre were all built for security purposes.
The government ombudsman, known as the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, has already found that there were serious instances of misconduct around this issue and made a finding that Zuma and his family enormously benefited from the "upgrades". She found that he should pay back some of the money involved in the project.
Since the Public Protector made the findings and recommendations, Zuma, who is by law obliged to reply to the report, has done everything in his power to delay, frustrate, obstruct and avoid the issue. In the process he has deliberately avoided even the most basic bourgeois legal requirements. The latest attempt to avoid responsibility includes blaming the architect for the spiralling costs!
When Malema asked Zuma the question about this, naturally there was again massive public interest.
An ANC MP immediately jumped to Zuma's defence: "Point of order,” he said.
But Malema was having none of it and cut him off immediately. "This thing of point of order is what you hide behind, because every time a report is brought you say point of order,” he said.
Zuma then responded that the Nkandla issue had been dealt with and, amazingly, that the minister of police was to decide on the issue!
But the EFF were not impressed with the answer. "When are you paying the money because the public protector has instructed you to pay the money? We want the date,” Malema asked in his supplementary question. "I am asking because you have not provided an answer,” he said.
"You failed to meet the 14 days deadline set by the Public Protector and now when you respond, you tell us about the police who must decide who will pay. We are not leaving here before we get an answer. When are you going to pay the money because the Public Protector recommended that the President must pay it back."
By that time there was upheaval in the public gallery. There was spontaneous cheering and clapping of hands. Chaos erupted. One EFF MP after the other demanded that the president answer the question. The ANC MPs and the Speaker were desperately covering the president.
EFF chief whip, Floyd Shivambu engaged in a shouting match with National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete who were now throwing the EFF members out. "We are not leaving," Shivambu replied.
"Why are we being thrown out? Nkandla money must be paid,” another EFF MP said.
"I’m calling security and suspending the house for a few minutes,” Mbete said, waving her finger like an angry headmaster and clearly losing control of the situation in her attempt to shield Zuma. As the House was suspended, EFF MPs refused to go and instead staged a sit-in and began chanting "pay back the money!"
There was pandemonium. Suddenly heavily armed riot police appeared. There was talk of them physically removing the EFF MPs from the National Assembly. Again, this would have been completely illegal.
ANC members then tried to storm the House but were prevented from doing so by police. In the chambers, the audio and visual feed were cut off and journalists were asked to vacate the House. They refused and continued tweeting from inside. Finally, after nearly two hours, EFF MPs arrived from the chambers, singing. Immediately scuffles broke out and police had to separate EFF and ANC MPs.
News about the events in parliament were carried live all over radio and television. Radio stations were inundated by people calling in to give their opinions, largely in favour of the EFF. Social media was abuzz. The hashtag #Paybackthemoney was trending on Twitter. This is now a slogan every South African is familiar with.
Shortly after this the House was reconvened, only to be suspended again. Subsequently, a committee was appointed to "investigate the conduct" of the EFF which now face a 15-day suspension from parliament.
These events are still reverberating throughout the country. Parliament is no longer the same. There is a new normality and intense public interest.
Horror without end
The political instability and the rise of the EFF are clear reflections of the situation on the ground. The masses are living intolerable lives and they are looking for radical solutions to their problems.
Poverty, unemployment, a dysfunctional school system, high food prices and homelessness are weighing like an albatross around the necks of millions of young people. And it is getting worse!
The latest official statistics, which are an understatement, show that youth unemployment has increased. The unemployment rate among youth aged 15 to 34 increased from 32.7 percent to 36.1 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to the official statistics agency StatsSA. The real figure is more than 50 percent. Among the unemployed, more than 70 percent are between the ages of 15 and 29.
The majority of these people live in the townships outside the big cities which provide fertile ground for dissatisfaction. The townships around the country are seething with discontent. They have been the scenes of some of the biggest protests over the last period.
Amongst the working class the situation is not much better. The Latest reports clearly show that many working class people are drowning in debt. According to the National Credit Regulator’s 2012/2013 annual credit report, personal debt in the country – spread across an active population of just over 20 million people – comes to a staggering R1.4 trillion ($140 billion).
Out of every R100 of wages earned, only R22 are spent on basic necessities like food, transport, electricity and water. The rest is spent on servicing debt.
It means that working class people are incurring more and more debt just to get by. This is the reason behind the bailout of the smaller banks, such as African Bank and the financial troubles behind Ellerines and the JD Group. People are struggling to buy food or even to pay their debts.
South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. It has some of the world's largest mineral reserves. The infrastructure is comparable to the most advanced capitalist countries. The country is potentially one of the richest on Earth. Yet, side by side with this fabulous wealth is the most grinding poverty and deprivation.
This is one of the reasons which explains its explosive national character.
A logical extension
What is currently happening in parliament is only an extension of what has been happening outside of it.
The masses are disgusted by the corrupt former leaders of the liberation movement. While the majority are desperately trying to make ends meet these gentlemen have amassed obscene wealth through outright theft of public funds.
When Malema asked the simple question to Zuma, "When are you going to pay back the money", he was merely asking a question which emanated from large sections of society - ANC supporters included - who are suffering from the devastating effects of capitalism.
When the EFF staged that protest in parliament on 21 August, singing, chanting, demanding answers - and not getting any - and the police was called in response, it only was only an extension of what is happening on an almost daily basis in the townships and in wider society. This is why so many people are interested in the affairs of parliament. They feel for the first time in years that someone is expressing their aspirations there.
The EFF has, in a short period of one year, made a huge impact on South African politics. Through radical speeches and by boldly posing issues such as nationalisation on the table, it has aroused great interest from broad layers of society. Many in the ANC leadership know this. This is why they have failed to engage the EFF directly on these issues. Rather, some in the ANC and SACP have attempted to deflect attention away from the most important issues by creating a storm around things like decorum and the EFF's attire.
This campaign was particularly severe in Gauteng where EFF members were effectively banned from the provincial legislature for wearing their red uniforms. This is of course a disgrace and the Fighters were correct to protest against this. But in doing so, it is important to realize that these layers inside the ANC are very comfortable having discussions along those lines - even if they are very heated ones - since it will obfuscate the burning issues of the day.
More than anything, the current events have thrown the spotlight on the bourgeois parliamentary system. The masses are looking to their so-called "representatives" for answers and solutions to their plight. They observe and follow the debates, desperately looking for a way out. Experience will teach them that the big decisions that impact their lives are not made in parliament, but rather, in the boardrooms of the banks, mining houses and the giant companies which dominate the South African economy.
It is clear that the top leadership of the ANC is completely committed to capitalism. In the process of implementing pro-capitalist measures, they are only disgracing themselves. This is one of the salient contradictions of our time. The more capitalism reveals its complete and utter bankruptcy, the more the leadership of the mass organisations embrace this rotten system. But one should never confuse the leaders with the ranks of the movement. The EFF itself did not fall from the skies. It is the product of dissatisfaction with the right-wing turn of the ANC tops.
There is an enormous distance that has opened up between the top leaders and rank-and-file. Sooner or later this contradiction will play itself out - with potential revolutionary consequences. It is necessary to understand this and therefore have a correct attitude toward the ranks of the ANC.
Practical action and a correct programme needed
It is necessary to take these heated discussions which are raging in parliament to their logical practical conclusions! For instance, mining companies like Anglo American have announced plans to lay off thousands of workers in order to shore up profitability. It is necessary for the EFF to use the parliamentary platform to denounce this. But even this is not enough. It is also imperative to launch an active campaign outside of parliament and to struggle to win the unions to a revolutionary programme and to carry this programme out in practice. If the company persists in its attempts, it should be nationalised immediately without compensating the capitalist fat-cats.
Then there is also the issue of the programme of nationalisation. Nationalisation in itself does not mean socialism. It is only its legal premise. It is necessary to have a programme of expropriating the bourgeoisie completely. For example, the programme of the EFF calls for 60 percent ownership in the hands of the state. This means a big part of the economy would be left under capitalist control.
But such a scenario would make a disastrous situation even worse. It would, to a large extent, distort the normal functioning of the market system and combine this with the worst vices of bureaucratic state control. All of this would eventually lead to enormous waste, mismanagement, sabotage, flight of capital, disinvestment, hoarding, speculation etc. The only solution, from a socialist point of view, is to nationalise the entire commanding heights of the economy without compensating the capitalists, under democratic workers' control and management.
It is clear that there is a great ferment in society. The masses are restless and are looking for ideas, solutions and answers. They will go through all kinds of experiences in the process and will put all parties and tendencies to the test.
In the current juncture where the ANC leadership has implemented capitalist policies and has promised to implement even more of these measures in the form of the National Development Plan, in the situation where the entire top leadership of South African Communist Party has joined government and are implementing these policies, where NUMSA's proposed Movement for Socialism is still a work-in-progress and where there is not yet a mass Marxist tendency in the workers’ movement, the EFF has stepped into the vacuum. These events in parliament clearly reveal the yearning desire among the masses for revolutionary and radical change. It reveals the very favourable conditions in which the ideas and methods of revolutionary Marxism can make an enormous impact.