YOU couldn‘t make it up. Peering at the world through chic European spectacles, shod in Italian shoes, chauffeured in a German car and the beneficiary of R25-million from a US-listed mining house, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete assailed Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema — and for even worse than being a “cockroach”.

According to a report of her speech in North West last weekend, Mbete — the person mandated by the constitution to ensure his parliamentary rights — said proud anti-imperialist Malema was actually “working with some Western countries in their quest to take over South Africa”.

Malema, who sports an überexpensive Swiss Breitling watch and is hoofed in Gucci loafers, repaid this rhetoric in similarly debased currency in parliament on Tuesday. He accused President Jacob Zuma of referring a bill back to parliament because of pressure from Western companies.

Mbete‘s subsequent and welcome apology for her attack on Malema simply underpins the incompatibility of being, simultaneously, a top gun in the ANC leadership and the presumed protector of members‘ interests, including those in the opposition.

But in the midst of this inflammation of hypocrisy and rhetoric, spare a thought for the institution that these two polarising figures — and one-time allies — represent.

Before interrogating their roles in debasing parliament, we should in fact thank Malema and Mbete for highlighting two fundamental trends.

Malema, more than any individual in the past dozen or more years, has reinvented parliament as the centre of the national discourse and attention. Mbete, in turn, has made blatant that which, before last Thursday‘s night of national shame, was done through back-door manoeuvring.

Certain signposts on parliament‘s downward road are illuminating.

First, under Thabo Mbeki the national legislature became, as I once described it, a “forum for non-debates and non-accountability”.

Mbeki got away with skipping question time and ministers routinely evaded censure for not answering questions because the executive amassed power outside of parliament and the opposition regarded itself as bound by the rules of the institution.

Respect for the office of the president was then absolute, and even I, the leader of the opposition to his administration, would stand up before and after Mbeki‘s speeches. He was the fortunate beneficiary of the mantle of his sainted predecessor, Nelson Mandela.

Also, despite his prickly personality, evasion of accountability, inflicting ruinous HIV/Aids policies on his people and green-lighting stolen elections in Zimbabwe, there was no stain on his personal conduct in matters of state.

Mbeki also helped to create, and presided over, a growing economy. Critical elements of civil society, from the press to the business community, therefore simply averted their gaze from the predations under way in parliament.

But it was during these post-Mandela years that parliament‘s rot began. Perhaps the greatest white-anting of the institution was hobbling parliament‘s quest to investigate the arms deal. In late 2001, the executive rewrote the damaging conclusions of the joint investigative task team into the affair, in the hand of the president‘s parliamentary enforcer, Essop Pahad.

This lessened its damning conclusions and protected the cabinet. But it damaged parliament. The infamous arms deal — the hard case that settled into bad parliamentary and political precedent — first detonated most of the institutional damage made plain in more recent times.

The first person who was convicted of corruption in this saga was Schabir Shaik, whose acts of corruption deeply implicated Mbeki‘s successor, Zuma. Zuma‘s escape from the coils of his own corruption charges, which haunt his presidency, hobbled parliament long before he assumed the highest office.

The 2001 strong-arming of parliamentary processes to protect the executive occurred, ironically, under the speakership of Dr Frene Ginwala. She otherwise provided a form of independence from the encroachment of the ruling party on the rights of opposition members and had, in the main, some regard for the rights and privileges of the institution over which she presided.

But even her impartiality and independence — rickety though they proved at that defining moment — were too much for the rampant presidency. After Mbeki‘s emphatic re-election in 2004, she was fired as speaker. Her replacement was Mbete, in her first of two terms as speaker.

By this time, the ANC no longer countenanced robust contestation by the opposition or even the occasional free-wheeling of its own members. During the Mandela era, frontline cabinet minister Joe Slovo had been able to question the necessity of the arms acquisition, and free-spirited ANC backbencher and singer Jennifer Ferguson could abstain on the abortion vote.

Now Mbete was joined in a quest for total control by the deeply militaristic Tony Yengeni, who was installed as the ANC‘s chief whip.

In this combination lay further seeds of decay. Question time was curtailed, follow-ups were limited and the speaker was accorded the right to “vet” questions to the president.

The speaker then defiled her office in 2006 by being at the front of the queue to wave Yengeni off to jail. He was the second political figure to be named, then convicted and imprisoned, for accepting an arms deal bribe. But the real stain on Mbete‘s office was that Yengeni had in fact been convicted of defrauding parliament, the very institution the speaker was entrusted to protect.

The next milepost on this slippery slope was “Travelgate”. In 2007, five years after the whistle was blown (and the whistle-blower victimised) 32 MPs received criminal convictions and sentences for cheating parliament, but the speaker allowed them to hold on to their parliamentary seats. The institution was now truly discredited.

Little surprise, then, that in 2007, when I vacated my parliamentary and political leadership, my successor, Helen Zille, declined to lead the main opposition party from parliament, choosing to do so from the City of Cape Town and later from the provincial legislature. Her decision both underlined and assisted the sidelining of the national legislature.

Enter Malema and the EFF, stage left, after last year‘s elections. Alongside 399 other MPs, Malema swore to uphold the rules embedded in the functioning of the legislature — but had, from day one, no intention of being bound by them.

No longer dealing with a rule-bound opposition force, the ANC realised that the old approach of back-door manoeuvring and the emollient and inclusive approach of Mbete‘s successor as speaker, Max Sisulu, would not suffice. Time to recall Mbete, now also ANC chairwoman, to fly the party flag and enforce its diktat from the speaker‘s throne.

Then the Nkandla bomb exploded. It was the gift that kept on giving to what was now, on this issue at least, a united opposition.

From his minor perch of just over 20 seats, Malema, aided by a report of the public protector, seized the moment. With just four words — “pay back the money” — he branded Zuma as an unaccountable and self-enriching politician. Untroubled by the mayhem he unleashed, Malema had captured the national spotlight.

Last Thursday night, before the state of the nation chaos unfolded before a now enthralled, possibly horrified, nation, an opposition MP asked a cabinet minister what he expected to happen. This was in the light of Malema‘s threat to demand the missing answers to the question he had attempted to ask of an unresponsive and, later, absent president.

“Whatever else, the speech will go ahead,” was the reply given.

And so it did. But in the process the naked use of force, the illegal jamming of cellphone signals and the sight of a president suffering an acute form of political autism were made plain. The security state made its unattractive reappearance 25 years after the enforced departure of securocrat-in-chief PW Botha.

But this time the pushback was different, more diverse and much stronger.

No longer could the executive trample constitutional rights underfoot. Two court applications immediately ensued and are ongoing. The press gallery, in an unprecedented display of revulsion, rose in protest. The leader of the official opposition, Mmusi Maimane, found his true voice, perhaps for the first time.

His “a broken man presiding over a broken society” mantra was aimed at Zuma. But it probably resonates way beyond the opposition constituency.

The speaker remains in office but, even post-apology, is bereft of authority and legitimacy.

In a constitutional democracy, might does not equate with right.

Authority has to be coupled with principled persuasion.

In the debate this week, it seemed that all parties had pulled back from the brink. The presiding officers were at pains to make even-handed rulings, and Malema read out a speech of thudding dullness, but left his wrecking ball at home.

And, for the first time in many years, both the nation and the state were entirely focused on parliament. In the wreckage of recent events lie, hopefully, the seeds of renewal.

 * Leon was a member of parliament from 1989 to 2009 and leader of the official opposition from 1999 to 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times