The President may, in terms of the Constitution and the Defence Act, authorise the use of the SANDF in certain circumstances to preserve the “law and order in the Republic”. However, such deployment of the SANDF to the precincts of Parliament can only be justified in exceptional circumstances. Those exceptional circumstances – in this instance – simply do not exist, given that the South African Police Services (SAPS) and Parliament’s own security personnel have, in the past, proven themselves capable of quelling skirmishes arising during the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Even then, their heavy-handed approach towards certain Members of Parliament has been roundly criticised by civil society and the courts alike. Bear in mind too, that the Defence Act forbids the SANDF from acting in a partisan fashion or from furthering any interests of a political party. The Defence Act further enjoins the SANDF to respect the rights and dignity of all persons.
The nation’s foundational values include transparency, openness and accountability, and the very presence of the SANDF, ostensibly to maintain law and order, fails to foster these values. Parliament, in terms of the Constitution, is meant to be a public platform for the consideration of all issues which affect the nation and as such, Parliament’s default position should be one that encourages public participation. This deployment of the SANDF appears to be a show of might, calculated to possibly cower dissenters.
The Media too plays a vital function in assisting South Africans realise their rights. An active and inquiring media – not one which is potentially confined to lame duck status in a “media square” and acting under guidance from the SAPS – is vital for the nation’s democracy to thrive. Further, the symbolism behind placing the media in a “media square” should not be lost. Ostensibly placing the media in a “box” can only be an intimidation tactic, and curtailment of the movement of the media could be viewed as an attempt at stifling the dissemination of information. Access to information is vital for ordinary South Africans to engage meaningfully in public life. The media assists the public to enjoy the right to access Parliament. As it appears, there are no compelling reasons to justify the attempt to curtail the reach of the media during the SONA.
This creeping securitisation of SONA perhaps speaks to a bigger question – why has the President come to be so fearful of citizens of the country he governs?
By Ms Phephelaphi Dube: Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights