Scuffles break out between EFF members and police.  Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Scuffles break out between EFF members and police after the party vacated Parliament last week. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

PRESIDENTIAL question time in the National Assembly descended into chaos on Thursday as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) refused to leave the House until President Jacob Zuma had said when he would pay back the money spent on his Nkandla residence.

Clad in their red overalls, the EFF MPs laid siege to the floor of the National Assembly and many of their supporters also took control of the public gallery in scenes of mayhem unprecedented in the 20 years of a democratic Parliament.

During the hour-long crisis the EFF chanted repeatedly, "pay back the money".

EFF leader Julius Malema triggered the chaos by asking when Mr Zuma would comment on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report, which found that he had improperly benefited from the R246m spend. The report also said Mr Zuma should repay a portion of the money spent.

On Mr Zuma’s insistence that he had properly responded to the report, Mr Malema demanded a time and date when Mr Zuma would pay back the money.

At one point in the hour-long crisis it looked as though riot police would have to forcibly remove the EFF but, with the media also refusing to leave the press gallery, there was a rethink and the House reconvened in order to formally adjourn.

The long-awaited confrontation between the EFF and parliamentary authorities was triggered when the speaker, Baleka Mbete, ordered the entire EFF caucus to leave the House. They had refused to remain silent and in numerous interjections called for Mr Zuma to "pay back the money". They said they would not leave until Mr Zuma had answered. But he said, "I have responded appropriately to the reports on Nkandla".

The EFF caucus and its supporters in the gallery also sang songs that appeared to be calling for Mr Zuma to be killed.

Eventually Ms Mbete ordered the other MPs to leave the chamber so that security staff could remove the EFF members. Parliamentary officials also asked the media to leave but this was rejected as unprecedented and unconstitutional.

There was a tense standoff with the 26 EFF MPs as African National Congress (ANC) MPs tried to get back in, dramatically increasing the chances of a violent confrontation.

The rules of Parliament say the EFF MPs will be able to take their seats at the next plenary of the National Assembly despite Thursday’s events. It would require a resolution of the House to decide whether harsher punishment is needed.

ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said the ANC was appalled at the outrageous behaviour of "honourable members". Even when there was disagreement it should be done with decorum, and Parliament and all South Africans had been embarrassed, he said.

Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said it was often important to remind ourselves what Parliament was — a forum to legislate for all South Africans. "It is not a rally." He launched a stinging attack on Ms Mbete, saying she had failed to maintain control in the House and then made matters worse by calling for police to intervene.

Mr Malema later defended the EFF, saying he was acting in the interests of his constituency. He accused Ms Mbete of being partisan in the way she ran the House.

Ms Mbete, in a late press conference, apologised to the president and SA’s people for the disruption. She said the EFF was being reckless with the dignity of South Africans who had elected Parliament.