The past two weeks of Parliament have been dominated by responses to the president’s State of the Nation address and radical questioning of what the institution is for. Three moments stand out for me.
The first occurred during the maiden speech of the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane. At the exact point that he tried to take cheap pot shots about the parliamentary attire of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the leader of the reds stood up and walked towards the podium. Maimane blinked first. He looked up and started to stumble over his over-rehearsed lines. He did not seem to know where to focus: on his text or on EFF leader Julius Malema.
In politics, timing is everything – and Malema is a master of timing.
Naturally, the second high point was Malema’s dramatic expulsion from the National Assembly. Granted, this was not the first time a party leader had been expelled from the House (and for the moment I’m saying nothing about the justness or otherwise of the order to leave).
I believe, as someone I met in the street told me, that “Parliament can’t handle the truth”. This struck me powerfully: the fact that our democratic system is based on a sustained lie. Our democracy can function as long as it’s fuelled by doublespeak – the words spoken by the elected representatives of the people do not mean what they appear to mean. For instance, the mantra of “a better life for all” actually means maintaining the status quo that benefits only a few. Milan Kundera’s famous saying – “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” – needs a corrective here. Actually, the struggle against power is the struggle to return meaning to words.
In our time, the first act of being revolutionary is to rescue words from the liberal hypocrisy of doublespeak. Neoliberalism dispossessed us of the shared communal experience of existing within a linguistic community. It’s like land dispossession: one loses possession of what continues to exist. Colonialists don’t disappear land, but they subvert and distort access to it. This is what is happening to words.
If we can’t say in Parliament that “the ANC government massacred workers in Marikana”, where else can we possibly speak this truth? What is it about this factually correct statement that offends the dignity and decorum of Parliament? If Parliament is offended by the truth, should we say it’s affirmed by lies?
As the leader of the reds said, if the ANC takes credit for the reduction of crime by the police, should it not, in equal measure, take responsibility for the police when they shoot down mineworkers for demanding a living wage?
The violent and primitive way in which EFF MPLs were ejected from the Gauteng provincial legislature tears asunder the veneer of respectability that provides cover for politicians with the over-the-top and comical title of “honourable”. What is honourable about wearing a suit? It’s a well-known trick that thugs and hooligans hide behind suits to conduct their evil deeds.
More specifically, what is respectable about politicians?
There is something deeply troubling about the determination of the ruling party to maintain the colonial iconography we inherited from our European colonisers. There seems to be an unspoken rule that the colonial and apartheid inheritance shall be defended by any means necessary.
The violent police involvement in the turfing out of the EFF MPLs from the legislature shows the lie of the fiction of separation of powers, on the one hand and, on the other, the ease with which liberals can descend into fascism. Is it not ironic that the Democratic Alliance approves of violence against EFF MPLs?
The violent outbursts from our rulers – provoked by the presence of workers’ symbols in Parliament – tells the hidden story of our democracy. It’s a democracy that must still learn to serve the majority. We are getting closer to the true meaning of words, but it’s not going to be an easy walk to freedom.
Andile Mngxitama is an EFF MP