On Thursday night, a group of burly men, acting on behalf of the speaker and the chairwoman, the executive, the ANC and, what seemed to be our establishment, physically removed a group of democratically elected MPs from our Parliament. The people who were removed had committed no violence, threatened no violence, and have no track record of serious violence. All they had was their voice. And if those in charge had had their way, no one would have been able to see it, or actually know it had happened in real time. A large part of our democracy died last night; the ANC can never again claim that it is ruling for the benefit of all of us.
That Malema was going to make a spectacle and be disruptive was always on the cards; the EFF’s final statement before the evening started made the promise once again. But it took a decision of such repressive ineptitude to force the first disruption of the night to come from the Democratic Alliance.
Last night started with what speaker Baleka Mbete eventually admitted was the jamming of cell phone signals. That forced the media feeling/thinking/behaving like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The shock of watching your cellphone signal disappear immediately upon entering the chamber as it would on entering North Korea is hard to describe. For those of my generation, cellphone signal is a human right that is an unbreakable part of freedom of expression. It is integral to the right to report on what is happening in real time. And because Parliament controls the TV feed from the National Assembly, but will cut it when it is in “recess”, and because the machinery of Parliament is controlled by the African National Congress (ANC), we, as journalists, know that it cannot be trusted. Most political journalists have some experience of cellphone jammers; we come across the same phenomena at the ANC’s national executive committee meetings. Parts of the 2012 Mangaung conference were also jammed.
At first it was claimed that the signal was jammed because cellphones can’t be used in the chamber. But if that was the case, and it would be in a sharp contrast with the previous SONAs, there was also an issue of not being told about it in advance. The fact we weren’t was proof that it was an attempt to stop us from doing our jobs. It was, literally, a ‘f***-you’ to the media and our combined audiences.
A message to whoever initiated and okayed the process of jamming: When you repress people, you should not be surprised when they rebel.
And that is exactly what happened. Journalists who praised President Jacob Zuma for his on the record lunch on Sunday were now revolutionaries, chanting, and “Bring back the signal” before proceedings started, together with the rest of the country on the social media. We were all now taking on the establishment.
The DA realised this, and realised too that the cellphones, and Twitter, and Facebook matter to their operations. Their party whips may also use WhatsApp groups to communicate. Either way, they were suddenly also pushed into becoming the anti-establishment.
When the EFF finally stood up to interrupt proceedings, they were second; the DA had got there first.
Who could have predicted that before the evening started?
And the reason it happened was because what the machinery of Parliament did last night was to try to control us. It cannot be argued that jamming cellphone signals, which is a deliberate act, was for security. If it was, then why were people not given access to Parliament’s own WiFi system? That would have allowed them to work, without needing independent cellphone signals in the chamber.
That attempt to control the representatives of the country, for the benefit of one party, because it could not have been for any other reason, pushed everyone else into rebellion. We would certainly not agree with the EFF’s agenda or tactics, but we were, for a bit, on the same side as them. Not because we wanted to be, but because we had been pushed there. We had been forced to become like the EFF.
This is not going to be the end of the matter. Parliament, the people who run it, could no longer be trusted.
And what that told us is that when they feel under pressure, they would use anything, including brute force, to protect themselves. The men who physically removed the EFF were proof that for the ANC, for Baleka Mbete, for Gwede Mantashe, and yes, of course, for Jacob Zuma, might was right last night.
The fact that the cellphone signal was turned back on is proof that the rest of the country is not going to live with this. That everyone outside the ANC is not going to live with this. That they will feel repressed, and then, naturally, will rebel.
Of course, this isn’t going to end here. The rest of the country saw what happened, even though they weren’t supposed to. The rest of the country will see also that if you want to keep your rights, you have to fight for them. And that there will be bruises along the way.
I have always been of the school of thought that the ANC would give up power gracefully, if it ever lost an election, that it would do the right thing, because there are many strong and good people in the party. But on Thursday night it used the might it controls through state power to clamp down on democracy. It used the physical force of a group of people that it had control over to remove a democratic voice.
And it can’t even tell us who those people were. Were they police, soldiers, or hired thugs from Executive Outcomes?
I am no longer so sure. And more than just a little bit scared about what will happen next. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine