AS South Africa took stock of its hard-won democracy following the chaotic scenes that erupted in parliament during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address, it is hard to shake off the feeling that the continent’s future is at a crossroads.
The other African giant, Nigeria, last week took the decision to delay its closely-fought presidential election—the second delay in four years— leading to concern that the high-wire political stakes at play could push the continent’s biggest economy towards an inexorable slide.
It is an unexpected situation—that the foremost countries in the region may have met, one on the way up if a credible poll is held, the other while damaging a proud record embodied by the late liberation hero Nelson Mandela.
Indeed in recent months both have seen state security forces forcefully enter parliament, once seen as sancrosanct.
Nigeria’s situation is perhaps more critical—it is the aftermath of the March 28 election that will determine how far it has come on the plodding road to democracy, 15 years after it exited military rule.
Will president Goodluck Jonathan accept an electoral defeat? Would challenger Muhammadu Buhari do the same after mounting such a stiff challenge to dislodge a party that has never lost power in the country’s recent civilian rule period?
A valid question to ask would be how the continent got here in the first place, in a year when nearly a dozen elections were scheduled.
South Africa’s latest reversal took form Thursday when radical lawmakers who interrupted Zuma to demand he “pay back the money” spent on upgrades to his private residence were dragged kicking and fighting out of parliament by a large force of security officials on Thursday night.
The country’s media have been united in their alarm. “Chaos sign of SA’s democratic decline,” the respected Business Day newspaper declared in a front-page headline.
“Unthinkable less than five years ago, the disturbing scenes that unfolded in and outside the national assembly last night are cause for SA to pause and reflect on why and how the country has arrived at this point.”
The paper pointed to Zuma’s presidency as a key factor in the decline.
“SA is in the mess that played out in parliament precisely because it has prioritised acquiescence to executive sensibilities over the critical need to do what is right,” Business Day argued.
In a sign of a hardening stance, Zuma who has been hotly heckled by members of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, said the nature of the country’s democracy was partly to blame for the mess.
“Our democracy is extraordinarily user-friendly, you can do whatever you want in South Africa, it’s a strength, at the same time it’s a weakness,” the president told a Friday breakfast session in a building nestled at the foot of Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain.
Without democracy, the opposition lawmakers would not have behaved the way they did, he said. He appeared to suggest that even stronger tactics should be used in future in parliament.
“They are actually causing chaos,” he told the business breakfast broadcast live on national television. “Clearly to my view this is a time for parliament to stand up and apply the rules more strictly than they do,” he said.
But EFF founder Julius Malema, formerly youth leader in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) until the party expelled him in 2012, said Friday the country was facing a “crisis”.
“It is a sad day that elected representatives can be beaten by police,” the firebrand politician said after he and his fellow lawmakers were ejected from parliament.
“All of us should agree that South Africa is in a crisis.”
“This has put our democracy in a serious danger,” Malema said, adding that the party would not be cowed.
Many commentators pointed to the jamming of mobile phone signals in the national assembly ahead of Zuma’s speech—preventing journalists from filing stories and pictures—as a clear sign of the government’s disregard for freedom of expression.
The clampdown was lifted after protests from media and MPs, which enabled video of the fracas to be shown, though the official parliamentary television feed focused only on the speaker, talking over the sound of scuffles.
“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,” Stephen Grootes wrote in the analytical Daily Maverick online newspaper, taking issue with the signal jamming.
“That attempt to control the representatives of the country, for the benefit of one party…, pushed everyone else into rebellion,” he wrote.
The largest opposition the Democratic Alliance’s senior lawmaker Mmusi Maimane described the havoc in parliament as a “disaster and national embarrassment”.
“...Zuma is no longer fit to be president,” of South Africa, said Maimane.
Khaya Dlanga, a columnist with the weekly Mail & Guardian said the parliament pandemonium “was a disgrace to our democracy. Nobody won. We lost as a country.”
“We have entered dangerous territory,” said Dlanga.
Nigeria would hold the same sentiment in the run-up to an election that almost all agree will change the polity for good.
It is easy—and many have rightly noted—to point out that the country’s current two-horse race points to an emergence of nationalist parties. But only the most naive would lose sight of the fact that the parties are only umbrellas for vast ethnic and political interests.
Parallels have been drawn with the cleavages of 1965 that led to the collapse of the country’s First Republic. Yet to insist on only changing the dates and not the circumstances would be to lose sight of the fact that Nigeria has rowed back a long way since those chaotic years, which gave birth to frequent military supervision.
The army has so far in the last 15 years restrained the urge to step in, but its influence on national matters remains overbearing, as seen by its politically-backed intervention that informed the election delay.
Can Nigerian build on the last few years, or will it let this opportunity go? As one analyst noted, Nigerians are enthusiastic for a functioning system, the main challenge is how to remove the venom from the process.
The gains to be had in the country by a credible election are too vast to pass over, and many Africans will be hoping that the biggest economy vaults over this critical hurdle. The country has to be bigger.