FIST fights erupted as unprecedented chaos descended on South African President Jacob Zuma’s annual State of the Nation address in parliament Thursday, with security forces called in to evict radical lawmakers who accuse him of corruption.
It was a landmark setback for Zuma, likely to reignite speculation that he could be dumped as leader of the African National Congress which brought the late liberation hero Nelson Mandela to power more than 20 years ago.
The parliamentary showdown had been signalled ahead of time by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema, a disgruntled former Zuma acolyte, who has won support with his charge that black majority rule has benefited only government fat cats and their cronies.
Forewarned, parliament put into action what was a clearly well-planned operation to limit the damage on a night usually reserved for red-carpet fashions and government platitudes.
When Malema made good on his threats to prevent Zuma from delivering his address until he answered questions about the $24 million of taxpayers’ money spent on “security upgrades” at his private residence, the EFF members were evicted by a large force of security officials.
The official television feed from parliament focused only on Speaker Baleke Mbete as fist fights broke out between EFF members and the security officials.
The fighting was shown later through mobile phone videos—a minor victory for the opposition after Zuma’s speech had been delayed by protests over mobile phone signals being cut off in parliament.
The EFF has just 25 lawmakers in the 400-seat national assembly, but has punched above its weight since contesting its first election last year, appearing to usurp the position of the much larger official, opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Shortly after the EFF’s eviction, the DA walked out after demanding to know whether the security officials in white shirts and black pants who evicted the EFF were police or parliamentary officers.
“You can’t send police into parliament,” said DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane.
After the walkout, Zuma resumed his state of the nation address to a partly empty house and a nation stunned by the earlier scenes in parliament.
Zuma’s ANC later condemned the EFF’s actions as “anarchy”, and said parliament had the right to ensure that lawmakers obeyed the orders of the Speaker.
Even before the disruption, the omens were ominous, with higher than usual levels of security around parliament and water canons fired at demonstrators several blocks away.
On a night traditionally reserved for lawmakers to show off their finest frocks or suits, DA MPs all wore black to signal their unhappiness with the state of the nation while the EFF wore their traditional red overalls, hard hats and gumboots to symbolise what they say is their solidarity with the working poor.
That claim is often derided by local media who refer back to Malema’s penchant for designer suits and watches when he was leader of the ANC’s youth league.
But the EFF has struck a chord with its proposals to nationalise mines and banks and seize white-owned land without compensation in Africa’s most developed economy.
Around 25% of South Africans are unemployed, according to official statistics, while unofficial estimates put the figure much higher.
At the heart of the upheaval is Zuma’s refusal to accept an ombudsman’s decision that he should repay some of the public money spent on “security items” such as a swimming pool, amphitheatre, cattle pen and chicken run at his rural home in Nkandla in the eastern Kwazulu-Natal province.
The money spent on what were billed as upgrades would buy several luxury homes in Johannesburg or Cape Town.
DA leader Helen Zille told several hundred supporters at a rally outside parliament that they would pursue through the courts some 700 charges of “corruption, money-laundering, and racketeering” against Zuma, which were controversially dropped..