Chaos flared at the opening of South Africa’s parliament on Thursday when armed security officials ejected opposition MPs from the assembly after they tried to question President Jacob Zuma over a financial scandal.
In scenes unprecedented in the 21 years since the country held its first democratic election, security officials, dressed in white shirts, scuffled with Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and other members of his party as they interrupted Mr Zuma’s annual state of the nation address.
Members of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, as well as other parties, then walked out of parliament in protest at the decision by Baleka Mbete, the Speaker, to send armed security personnel into the chamber.
Ms Mbete also chairs the ruling African National Congress, the former liberation movement Nelson Mandela led to a historic election victory in 1994.
Since South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, the “Rainbow Nation” has been seen as a model of democracy in Africa. But after Thursday’s events, opposition parliamentarians accused Mr Zuma of violating the constitution and acting as if the country were a police state.
Mr Malema said the government responded to political issues not with “political answers but security apparatus”.
“We are not going anywhere. We will continue to raise our issues without fear,” he told reporters.
Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, said: “This is a police state — the ANC is trying to force everybody to toe the line in their own way.”
Mr Zuma has been dogged by allegations over the $22m spent on security upgrades to his sprawling Nkandla homestead. The public protector recommended last year that he repay some of the money, but the president, who is in his second term, has refused, insisting he is innocent of any wrongdoing.
However, opposition MPs have accused him of avoiding parliament in recent months to dodge questions over the affair. The EFF vowed to use the state of the nation address, which the president traditionally uses to outline the government’s plans for the year, to confront him.
Less than five minutes after the president began his speech, an EFF member, clad in the red “workers’” overalls that have become the party’s uniform, stood to raise a point of order, asking when he would pay back the money. The Speaker repeatedly told the party’s MPs that this was not the occasion to raise such issues.
Mr Malema became the fourth EFF MP to stand and ask about affair and, after an argument about parliamentary proceedings, Ms Mbete ordered him to leave the house. When he and his colleagues refused, she called on security forces to expel them.
During the subsequent scuffles, punches were thrown and a bench was damaged as Mr Malema and other EFF MPs were dragged out.
“It’s a profound moment in the history of our nation and it rests on one fact — that there’s a president who refuses to uphold the law in this country and is committed to breaking the constitution of the republic,” Mmusi Maimane, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, said after the incident.
Jeff Radebe, minister in the presidency, defended the government and blamed the chaos on the EFF, which he accused of seeking to undermine the country’s democratic institutions.
“We are not a police state. We are a constitutional democracy,” he said. “It [the incident in parliament] was embarrassing, but I’m sure It happens around the world.”
The EFF and Mr Malema, a former ANC Youth League leader and once a staunch ally of the president, have altered the dynamics of South African politics since winning 25 seats in last year’s election. In particular, they have shaken up a once sleepy national assembly dominated by the ANC.
“Nkandlagate” and other scandals have dogged Mr Zuma, who took power in 2009, at a time when the economy of Africa’s most developed nation has performed poorly and frustrations over rampant unemployment and poverty mount.
Last year, a wave of protracted wage strikes battered the economy, while this year businesses and households are being forced to endure rolling electricity outages as a power crisis deepens.