Julius Malema has chosen to participate in Parliament, yet regards himself unbound by its rules and precedents, writes Tony Leon

THURSDAY night’s debacle in Parliament reminded me of a spectacularly bad football match. Instead of focusing on the man with the ball, the spectators’ attention pivots to the activities away from the centrepiece — the offside players, the deliberate fouls, the baying crowd and the biased referee.

Indeed, even before play commenced for the state of the nation address, the police water-cannoning of opposition supporters outside Parliament and arrest of an opposition MP salted the clues for what was to follow. Never mind the fist in the velvet glove, the country and the world would soon see just the unfurled fist.

Stripped of subtlety, South African Communist Party boss and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced after the melee of storming policemen and injured MPs, his fist apparently hitting his palm: “We had to show them who is in charge.” And so you did, Blade, so you did.

Indeed, the government’s enchantment, or the enthusiastic security cohort within it, for all things Chinese was also on display. “The great firewall of China” — historian Niall Ferguson’s slogan for the communist government’s blocking of unwanted social media — also descended briefly on Parliament.

Persons unknown — but one can hazard a guess — jammed cellphone signals out of the National Assembly. In one of the few clear goals scored by the opposition on Thursday night, and not on offer in China, Democratic Alliance chief whip John Steenhuizen invoked the constitution to persuade the speaker to restore it.

A decade or so ago, the opposition which I then led and the government of Zuma’s predecessor actually had a debate of sorts, without assistance from the police. I used the reversible raincoat rhetoric which seemed apt for such sonorous events as the state of the nation debate. “There’s nothing wrong with the nation,” I declaimed. “It’s the state that’s the problem.” Both before, and especially after, last Thursday both seem to be in crisis. But how deep is the crisis and what does it tell us, to borrow Will Hutton’s title of a book of his, “the state that we’re in”?

The day after the address I received a call from former newspaper editor Tim du Plessis, a thoughtful veteran of our tumultuous past 30 years of history-in-the-making. After agreeing that the last rites being read by some for our fledgling democracy were a mite premature, he reminded me of a brutal page from our recent past. It was in that most fateful of years, 1993, between the assassination of Chris Hani in April and the finalisation of the interim constitution in November. One June morning at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park, the buffoonish but sinister Eugene Terre’Blanche and his Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) right-wing forces invaded the talks venue with an armoured car and men on horseback. The latter-day burghers succeeded in smashing part of the glazed façade of the conference centre, and, for a while, took charge as delegates scurried to safety.

Du Plessis noted that, on that afternoon, everything seemed far more at risk than it did after last Thursday night. I then remembered that my late predecessor, Zach de Beer, told our delegates’ group that he doubted “whether even the Archangel Gabriel, were he to descend among us, could reason and restore peace between the government and its right-wing foes”.

In far more earthly and recent form than the archangel, the country noted the failure of Pastor Ray McCauley to repair relations between the African National Congress and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose tactics bear more than a passing resemblance to the fascists of the AWB.

Of course, history now records that, as with other right-wing ruses of that time, the sound and fury and the real fear invoked by them did little to retard the momentum of the process they tried in vain to stop.

But there are other big differences between then and now, which offer a less reassuring prospect for the future. First, there is the biggest disrupter of all, Julius Malema and his EFF. Business thought leader Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School has written an entire book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, on the power of disruption. Or, how bad and cheap products can usurp long-settled brands and market leaders. One example he cites is how in the 1950s, the cheap and tinny and initially bad-quality Japanese transistor radio in short time overwhelmed the established radiograms of my grandmother’s era, which would soon disappear entirely from the shelves.

In some ways, the EFF is a classic disrupter. But unlike the AWB, Malema has chosen to participate in Parliament, yet appears to regard himself unbound by its rules, conventions and precedents. Strip away, for a moment, Zuma’s ducking and diving on the Nkandla questions and the shield offered to him by speaker Baleka Mbete and the way she puts the opposition to the sword. How should Malema’s disruptions be dealt with in a parliamentary democracy, where the rules of robust engagement are not a licence to pillage parliamentary privilege and bring down the House?

Presumably, and perhaps fatefully, the speaker and her party colleagues decided to confuse means and ends. Parliament and the people who elect it are indeed entitled to demand proper debate and not the one-trick-pony antics of serial disrupters. But when armed heavies, signal jamming and the full apparatus of the PW Botha iron fist are unleashed, then it may be said that they “destroy better than they know”.

Or perhaps they — the current rulers — know only too well and simply do not care, which brings us to the second fork in the road set out at Kempton Park in 1993. Although the parliamentary building, even the Tuynhuys presidential office next door, were designed to the architectural specifications of PW Botha, the democratic furniture of our new order was cut from new and radically different cloth. We were meant, among other things, to replace the culture of authority with that of persuasion; democracy in place of brute force. Yet what was unveiled on Thursday night was far too reminiscent of the old era and seemed to bury the new.

But one group of people who have powers in the new era they never possessed in the old is the judiciary. Conspicuously, as armed police entered the chamber, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng exited it. One of the judges president present was also reported as shouting at a policeman: “If you’re armed you had better get out of here.” The chastened policeman duly left. In such small events we can derive some comfort.

Perhaps even more extraordinary was the very public demand of Malema that he be treated as a liberal. He demanded of the speaker that she judge his MPs and their behaviour as “individuals and not as a collective”. Hugo Chavez, his late inspiration, must be spinning in his grave.

Finally, what of the player at the centre of it all? When Zuma finally rose to speak, he faced an open goal, after so many on his side had netted own goals. Doctors are confronted with a trick question during training: “What treatment is offered by ear in an emergency?” The correct answer is, “words of comfort”.

Zuma’s nation had watched the spectacle before he spoke, dismayed and appalled. He would have scored big had he even alluded to it and, as the man at the apex of our now damaged democracy, offered words of comfort, reassurance and repaired the breach. But he laughed and said not a word about it.