South Africa's democracy under spotlight after upheaval in parliament

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, wearing red uniforms, clash with security forces during South African President's State of the Nation address in Cape Town on Feb 12, 2015. South Africa was Friday evaluating its hard-won democracy, embo
Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, wearing red uniforms, clash with security forces during South African President's State of the Nation address in Cape Town on Feb 12, 2015. South Africa was Friday evaluating its hard-won democracy, embodied by the late liberation hero Nelson Mandela, a day after chaos erupted in parliament during President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address.-- PHOTO: AFP

CAPE TOWN (AFP) - South Africa was Friday evaluating its hard-won democracy, embodied by the late liberation hero Nelson Mandela, a day after chaos erupted in parliament during President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address.

Radical lawmakers who interrupted Mr Zuma to demand he "pay back the money" spent on upgrades to his private residence were dragged kicking and fighting out of parliament by a large force of security officials on Thursday night.

"Chaos sign of SA's democratic decline," the respected Business Day newspaper declared in a front-page headline.

"Unthinkable less than five years ago, the disturbing scenes that unfolded in and outside the national assembly last night are cause for SA to pause and reflect on why and how the country has arrived at this point."

The paper pointed to Mr Zuma's presidency as a key factor in the decline.

"SA is in the mess that played out in parliament precisely because it has prioritised acquiescence to executive sensibilities over the critical need to do what is right," Business Day argued.

After being hotly heckled by members of the far-left, anti-capitalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, Mr Zuma said the nature of the democracy the country has embraced was partly to blame for the mess.

"Our democracy is extraordinarily user-friendly, you can do whatever you want in South Africa, it's a strength, at the same time it's a weakness," the president told a Friday breakfast session in a building nestled at the foot of Cape Town's famous Table Mountain. Without democracy, the opposition lawmakers would not have behaved the way they did, he said.

EFF founder Julius Malema, formerly youth leader in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) until the party expelled him in 2012, said Friday the country in a "crisis".

"It is a sad day that elected representatives can be beaten by police," the firebrand politician said after he and his fellow lawmakers were ejected from parliament.

"All of us should agree that South Africa is in a crisis."

"This has put our democracy in a serious danger," Mr Malema said.

Many commentators pointed to the jamming of mobile phone signals in the national assembly ahead of Mr Zuma's speech - preventing journalists from filing stories and pictures - as a clear sign of the government's disregard for freedom of expression.

The clampdown was lifted after protests from media and MPs, which enabled video of the fracas to be shown, though the official parliamentary television feed focused only on the speaker, talking over the sound of scuffles.

"A large part of our democracy died last night; the ANC can never again claim that it is ruling for the benefit of all of us," Stephen Grootes wrote in the analytical Daily Maverick online newspaper, taking issue with the signal jamming.

"That attempt to control the representatives of the country, for the benefit of one party..., pushed everyone else into rebellion.

"We would certainly not agree with the EFF's agenda or tactics, but we were, for a bit, on the same side as them," he wrote.

Mr Malema told reporters that his party, which holds 25 of the 400 seats in the national assembly, would not be cowed. "This is just the beginning," he said.

"We are continuing participating in this democracy. We will continue to ask questions from the number one tsotsi (criminal)."

Mr Zuma, however, appeared to suggest that even stronger tactics should be used in future in parliament.

"They are actually causing chaos. So you have a problem," he told a business breakfast broadcast live on national television.

"Clearly to my view this is a time for parliament to stand up and apply the rules more strictly than they do," he said.