10/02/2017 6:02 AM AEDT | Updated 12/02/2017 7:46 PM AEDT

Ferial Haffajee: A Broken Parliament And A Giggling President Stripped Bare

The night was like a contemporary staging of the tale of the naked emperor.
Rogan Ward / Reuters
The night was like a contemporary staging of the tale of the naked emperor.


Political humiliation, fury, violence and disruption marked the opening of Parliament. President Jacob Zuma is now the naked emperor.

Zuma started his State of the Nation address 78 minutes after he was meant to begin, after an unprecedented and violent night of disruption and violence. And he spoke, in a sense, to himself: the opposition benches were largely empty.

How does the president come back from this real-time humiliation beamed into millions of homes to complete his term, which ends in 2019?

The president was humiliated and nervous as he started speaking, clearly rattled. Then he giggled once, and twice again, laughing nervously at MPs who were coughing, possibly after they had caught some gas fired near the National Assembly. The House of Parliament was broken and in pandemonium.

As he started speaking, bloodied MPs in red uniforms could be seen outside Parliament, hurt in a violent scuffle with Parliament's white-shirted guards who bundled them out of the National Assembly. On the markets, the Rand tanked at the sight of absolute chaos in South Africa's parliamentary chamber, before later rallying. Nearby, at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, where the ANC was planning a victory rally, violent scuffles broke out between competing political forces. It was a political disaster and a harbinger of potential instability for a country that has been largely peaceful since 1994.

Opposition and ruling party MPs swore violently at each other in scenes not seen since 1994, threatening the basis of South Africa's effective multi-party system. "F**k you, racist," screamed a member of the ANC at the DA's chief whip John Steenhuisen. "Get these dogs get out," said another ANC MP.

Back inside Parliament, a post-traumatic and shocked silence sat heavily over the august room. There was almost no rousing applause even when Zuma spoke about the legendary ANC leader Oliver Tambo to whom the night was dedicated. Did anybody hear the speech? It didn't sound like it as the shocked hush was broken only by perfunctory ANC applause each time the president mentioned a big number or project.

Earlier in Parliament Zuma had been called a "scoundrel", a "criminal", and "rotten to the core" by members of the EFF and the Democratic Alliance (DA). The EFF leader Julius Malema changed the party's stance from #paybackthemoney (the campaign to get Zuma to pay for personal renovations at his home at Nkandla) to #Zumamustgo.

Unlike previous years, the EFF did not disrupt alone but were joined by the official opposition, the DA, Cope and Agang. The night was like a contemporary staging of the tale of the naked emperor: the story of the leader who walks naked but whose citizens praise his clothes out of fear. Tonight, the emperor was stripped bare.

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