The Problem With the Party of Mandela: In One Parliament Brawl

How a president’s speech became a soap opera of national dysfunction


On Thursday, South African President Jacob Zuma delivered his state of the nation address to parliament. But rather than inspiring faith among democratically elected lawmakers some two decades after the end of apartheid, the speech became the backdrop to a brawl, followed by a walk-out that left the president listing the nation's ambitions and accomplishments to a half-empty room.

The events were not just a farce but an indication that Zuma's African National Congress—the party of Nelson Mandela, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid—may be starting to lose its grip on power. It likely could have been foreseen that members of the left-wing opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, would repeatedly interrupt the president’s speech with chants of "pay back the money"—a favorite EFF slogan referring to corruption allegations surrounding the multi-million dollar renovation of Zuma's estate. The party has disrupted parliament with the same chant before. And it was pretty transparent about its intentions for Zuma's speech: The EFF altered its homepage to show a  “#paybackthemoney” clock, counting down the days, hours, and seconds leading up to the state of the nation address.

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When the chant started, National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete called in armed security forces to eject the EFF members from the proceedings. That order, in turn, led to the brawl.

The ruling party's forceful intervention raised the ire of another opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which walked out en masse.

Zuma read his speech anyway, to occasional applause from members of his own party, prompting one South African satirist to joke on Twitter that the national address had become “one big ANC selfie.” South Africa's newspapers on Friday carried disparaging headlines describing the spectacle.

The ANC appeared largely unconcerned, almost detached. Zuma, for his part, seemed to laugh off the disruptions of his speech, and the ANC MPs danced and sang after the address as if the event had been a success.

Yet the opposition parties in South Africa are clearly making themselves heard. As political analyst and former ANC activist Raymond Suttner recently pointed out, the long-dominant party may now be at its weakest point since it first took power. “Until now," he wrote, "the ANC has been able to work on the assumption that the opposition is a semi-irrelevant irritant, raising issues that may have been true but could, in the final analysis, be ignored without significant cost.”

Now, however, "the EFF  has the power to mount sustained attacks on ANC leaders and keep highlighting their lack of accountability ... [and the DA] has also embarked on tactics that make it difficult for the ANC simply to push through its decisions.”

Still, it's unclear what the opposition can accomplish beyond forced political stalemates and parliamentary theatrics. "No one comes out of this well,” Prince Mashele, a political analyst, told reporters Thursday. "If pigs wrestle in the mud, it doesn't matter who squeals loudest. All you see is mud being thrown around."