Malema’s decorum-busting MPs – good or bad?
Malema reacted to a parliamentary committee on protocols, including a dress code for the National Assembly. He rejected anything which might require the EFF to don more formal-looking garb.
“We are not going to dress like colonial masters… I am wearing an overall, it’s clean and I am not smelly,” he told a newspaper. EFF MP Godrich Gardee said: “Where will it end? Next thing they will be telling us which colour underwear to wear and how to speak.”
Who is right, Malema or the sticklers for protocol? It’s a sensitive balance. It is crucial that MPs respect the principles of democratic procedure – appropriate dress is one way of showing this. But effusive and demonstrative debate is also a democratic necessity.
How far can the notion of vigorous debate be stretched without damaging the institution of Parliament itself? In 1998, during a fierce argument between ANC and National Party MPs, Manie Schoeman of the National Party punched the ANC’s Johnny de Lange who then retaliated. Emotions have at other times got equally heated, but within acceptable limits.
Because of the intense political minefield of Israeli politics, Israel’s Knesset has had various unruly incidents. In 2010, Arab MK Haneen Zoabi was cursed and shoved after relating her experience as a passenger on the Mavi Marmara ship which attempted to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
Other MKs shouted her down: “Go back to Gaza, you traitor!” yelled one in Arabic. Anastasia Michaeli alighted the podium and tried to block her from speaking by standing between her and the microphone. Jamal Zahalka ran forward to defend Zoabi. Arab and Jewish MKs scuffled in the aisles, requiring ushers to separate them. The Speaker expelled Michaeli and Zahalka from the hall.
One of the most notorious protocol-breaking incidents in global forums occurred during the Cold War at the usually-sombre UN general assembly, where decorum reflects strongly on a country’s image. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev vociferously demanded the resignation of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, accusing him of acting for colonial powers and being unfit for his job.
Khrushchev later shocked international delegates by banging his shoe on the desk after the Philippines accused the USSR of imperialism in Eastern Europe. Compared to parliamentary punch-ups, this is mild stuff, but everything in its context.
In South Africa’s National Assembly, animated displays can be a healthy contrast to the boring speeches often characterising it. Malema’s antics can make citizens pay attention to debates which should be of major concern to them. But the danger is that as a society we are sitting on a tinder box, and unruliness in Parliament by mavericks, can help set the tone for behavior in the street.
Witness the violent xenophobic attacks against immigrant shopkeepers which suddenly erupted in Soweto last week, reflecting perilous tensions just below the surface.
For Jews, there is a further dimension which echoes from a different, distant historical context. The red beret-wearing, bullying EFF MPs conjure up nasty memories of the uniformed Nazi thugs in Germany who defied decent political norms in the 1930s, ultimately destroying that country’s veneer of “tolerance” and paving the way for its Jew-hatred to run amok, with fatal consequences.
We’re a long way from such a scenario here. The problem is that it’s easy to turn a blind eye in the beginning, but more difficult to stop things later spiraling out of control.
Charismatic populists like Malema can influence people for good and bad. He should beware that his tactics – he has even threatened to disrupt President Jacob Zuma’s upcoming state of the nation address – don’t inspire further lawlessness in the country. If Parliament becomes a free-for-all, our democracy will quickly go down the tubes.
Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SA Jewish Report. He writes this column in his personal capacity.