What happened in Parliament on 12 February 2015 was neither acceptable nor justifiable in an open and democratic society. These actions – the arrest of opposition party members gathering outside Parliament by the South African Police Service (SAPS); the unjustifiable suppression of cellular telephone signals in the National Assembly, and the manner in which the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Speaker and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and the security services who entered the National Assembly, acted – seriously undermine those values, rights and principles fundamental to our constitutional democracy.

The real concern, however, is what this combination of events says about the state of our democracy. Why have we witnessed what we witnessed on 12 February 2015? The arrest of Democratic Alliance (DA) members outside Parliament by riot police is reminiscent of a terrible past. The suppression of cellular telephone and data signals in the National Assembly – whether by Parliament or a government agency – is unacceptable (Parliament must investigate this violation and ensure that those responsible face the consequences, including prosecution, if found to be the result of an unlawful action). Thereafter, although members of the EFF initially raised points of order – as allowed by the Rules of Parliament – they soon overstepped that privilege. This allowed the Speaker and Chairperson to interpret the Rules as widely as possible so as to call in, as reported, SAPS officers in plain clothes to remove members of the EFF from the House. In fact, very little of what was seen on Thursday can be deemed reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.

Our democracy was founded upon the premise that government must be based on the will of the people. Such government, in terms of the Constitution, must be a multi-party system of democratic government to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness, subject to the Constitution and the Rule of Law. Parliament – and its National Assembly in particular – is a cornerstone of this multi-party system of democratic government. Members of Parliament are elected to represent the people and to ensure accountable, responsive and open government by the people under the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

As such, Parliament must provide a national forum for public consideration of issues and for scrutiny and oversight of the Executive’s actions. However, the degree and vigour with which Parliament engages in debate on matters of national concern, and the manner in which it carries out its oversight duty, is predominantly determined by the African National Congress (ANC) and, by implication, the Speaker of the National Assembly. The fact that the Speaker is also the Chairperson of the ANC symbolises the degree to which the parliamentary process is dominated by the ruling alliance political machine, rather than by the mandate set out in the Constitution. Moreover, the fact that Members of Parliament lose their seats if they lose their membership of the party that nominated them to Parliament means that, in practice, they are accountable to their party bosses and not to the electorate.

The Guptagate-saga and the Nkandla-matter unfortunately serve as examples of the degree to which Parliament has become subservient to the governing party and of how this has diluted its mandate to debate important national issues, and to call the Executive to account. Consequently, when real debate is stifled and effective oversight limited to lip service, the people – including opposition parties – will get frustrated, especially if the governing party and its office bearers in Parliament govern with a majoritarian mentality.

What we have been seeing in Parliament may well be the result of the National Assembly’s own failure to effectively hold the Executive accountable and to debate issues of national concern as expected by the nation. Nonetheless, trying to negate the result of the latter by calling in the security services, flies in the face of every value and fundamental freedom our society was founded on.

By Adv Johan Kruger, Director: Centre for Constitutional Rights

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY