The South African Parliament went on recess last month after a raucous final session saw sanctions handed down to representatives of the country’s newest and third-largest political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. Twenty of the party’s representatives were found guilty of “conduct constituting contempt of Parliament” and some were suspended without pay for as long as 30 days. But if anyone has treated Parliament with contempt, it’s President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress.
They have used their majority to shield Mr. Zuma and his administration from accountability for lavish spending on upgrading the president’s private residence, ostensibly for security-related reasons. Under their watch, the project’s costs soared nearly tenfold, and its scope expanded to installing fixtures that had nothing to do with the president’s security. Mr. Zuma has consistently denied he personally benefited from the upgrades, despite two independent reports asserting the opposite from the Office of the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and another from the national police force’s special investigations unit.
But reason and rules often are worlds apart. And in this gap, tensions have boiled over as opposition parties bucked the rules in so-far unsuccessful attempts to hold Mr. Zuma accountable. Frustrated, they’ve turned to the courts to adjudicate an issue that’s as much about interpreting the Constitution as it is about the appetite of the public to participate in the country’s democracy.
According to the rules, Mr. Zuma and the A.N.C. are entitled to use their majority to protect the party’s interests. This includes electing Baleka Mbete as speaker of the house, the final arbiter of debate in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. As the party’s chairwoman, Ms. Mbete also presides over meetings of the A.N.C.’s highest decision-making committee.
This obviously creates a conflict when the interests of the A.N.C. are at odds with the interests of Parliament as an institution of democratic accountability. Ms. Mbete’s dismissive rulings in debates over upgrades to Mr. Zuma’s private residence are a case in point. However, the rules are mum on the level of independence required by the speaker.
Until the E.F.F.’s sudden 25-seat debut in the 400-seat National Assembly last May, other parties seemed resigned to obeying the rules. Led by 33-year-old Julius Malema, a former president of the A.N.C.’s youth league who was accused of sowing disunity and expelled from the party in 2012, the E.F.F. has chosen to ignore rules that do not make logical sense in the circumstances.
The party’s representatives received their latest suspension for their role in events that unfolded on Aug. 21, when Mr. Zuma fielded questions and jeers from legislators in the Assembly, as the British prime minister does in the House of Commons. During the session, Mr. Malema demanded that Mr. Zuma answer when he would pay back a portion of the nonsecurity-related costs of the upgrade to his home, as directed by Ms. Madonsela. When Mr. Zuma tried to evade the question and Ms. Mbete made rulings that protected him from the scrutiny, the E.F.F.’s representatives broke decorum in a chant of “Pay Back the Money!” Other parties joined in, too, but the E.F.F. was the most boisterous, and its members refused to leave the chamber when the session was halted.
Ms. Mbete called riot police to forcibly remove them, but the police were quickly ordered to stand down. They answer to the executive branch that is, in theory, accountable to the legislature. Therefore, the police have no powers to restrict the freedom of expression of members of Parliament unless those members pose an immediate threat of bodily harm to someone.
The relative calm in subsequent sittings was short-lived. The police did eventually enter the chamber on Nov. 13 and allegedly assaulted at least five opposition party representatives. They were called to forcibly remove Reneilwe Mashabela, an E.F.F. legislator who had refused to withdraw a statement in which she’d called Mr. Zuma a “thief” and a “criminal.” Ms. Mashabela’s defiance followed a failed attempt by opposition parties to filibuster in order to prevent the adoption of an A.N.C. committee report that discounted some of Ms. Madonsela’s findings. The committee report also deemed it “premature” to say whether Mr. Zuma had benefited unduly from the upgrades.
In Ms. Madonsela’s view, only a court of law has the power to set aside her office’s findings. The E.F.F. has now asked the Cape Town High Court to overturn the suspension of its representatives. From the papers the party has submitted to the court, it’s clear that the application is an opening salvo in a looming court battle over the powers and privileges of legislators to hold members of the executive to account.
Whatever the courts decide, the most significant judgment will come from the electorate. South Africans came out in large numbers to vote in the May election but have not since participated meaningfully in the events in Parliament. Talk shows and social media suggest anecdotally that a large number want the president to pay back the money. But 62 percent of voters cast a ballot in favor of Mr. Zuma and the A.N.C., despite the dark cloud already hanging over the president’s home at the time of the election.
If the public leaves it to the courts alone to decide the balance of power in a fledgling democracy, then they run the risk of cementing a reputation that they sign a blank check every five years allowing lawmakers and judges to decide what to do with citizens’ most precious, hard-won asset: a right to a say in how the country is governed.
T.O. Molefe is an essayist, at work on a book on post-apartheid race relations.