A man holds a placard reading 'For sale Nkandla' during a student demonstration in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Friday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/STEFAN HEUNIS
A man holds a placard reading 'For sale Nkandla' during a student demonstration in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Picture: AFP PHOTO/STEFAN HEUNIS

DEMOCRACY works in SA — mainly for those who prefer running it down. Much has been said about last week’s backdown on Nkandla by President Jacob Zuma, but one point that has not been made is that it showed how wrong it is to get excited about disrupting Parliament as a way of getting the government to listen.

It is common among insiders to insist that the disruptions of the past two years have made Parliament "more relevant". But, while the disruptions may entertain some people, they changed nothing. They were aimed at getting Zuma to "pay back the money" — they failed. The loud noise and theatrics were greeted by the Nathi Nhleko report, which seemed to make it less likely that he would pay back anything, and a united African National Congress caucus determined to protect him.

Now, Zuma has shifted. While it is fashionable to explain this with complex theories, an old academic principle insists that if you have a simple explanation that fits the facts, it is a waste of time to look for one that is complicated.

The simple explanation here is that he was days away from a court case and his lawyers told him he had a weak case and should settle rather than lose in court.

So, it was not disrupting the system that worked — it was using it. The only valid reason for disruption (beyond publicity-seeking), is that using the system to force the government to listen does not work and so disruption is the only way. But, if court action can achieve what political theatre cannot, the system does work and the question is how to make it work better, not how to disrupt it.

This does not mean citizens should use the courts instead of taking to the streets. One of the great myths about democracy is that it forces people to express themselves in courtrooms or parliamentary chambers only. Taking to the streets is an important feature of democracy, provided that those who do it respect the rights of everyone else. Student demonstrations last year did force the government and universities to face issues they had been ducking.

But the system also provides formal forums where people can express themselves. These are not substitutes for demonstrating or expressing ourselves in any peaceful way we choose. Rather, they offer a way of turning what is said on the streets into concrete decisions. If they are used effectively, they can give citizens a voice. But they cannot do that unless they are protected, not disrupted.

We are, apparently, about to see more disruption in Parliament, this time over the replacement of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister. But the raid on the Treasury that cost him his job has already been beaten back — not by disrupting politicians, but by organised groups who, without theatrics, told the government they would not allow it to cross that line, further evidence that the system provides channels for those organised enough to be able to use them. To use disruption to fight a battle that has already been won by other means is to show how pointless the tactic is.

Before we get too enthusiastic about the system, it does not serve everyone. For those who are organised and know how to be heard, it works very well. For those who are not, it may barely work at all.

The middle class and the better-off have no problem using it to press the government into doing what they want; it is the poor who are usually excluded. This is not only because they lack the money and muscle to be heard, but also because the basic freedoms that are essential if people are to be heard are often absent in the places where the poor live. It is in townships and shack settlements, not suburbs, that activists are bullied or, at times, killed for challenging those who hold power.

This makes it all the more ironic that those who take such delight in insisting that disruption works better than sticking to the rules are themselves middle-class insiders: the system they deride works for them — those it excludes do not want to disrupt it, but to become part of it.

Of course, this will not deter the disrupters from seeking the limelight, or their cheerleaders from egging them on. But the next time you see a parliamentary disruption, bear in mind you will be watching not effective opposition, but another attempt by insiders to attract attention by rejecting the levers so many others are denied.

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.