• President Jacob Zuma arrives to give his state of the nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

  • Economic Freedom Fighters leaders Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu are bundled out of Parliament last month. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

  • EFF members clash with Parliament Protection Services during the state of the nation address in February. Picture: THE TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

  • Police enter the Parliament building in Cape Town during President Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address in February. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

  • Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema addresses reporters on the steps of the Parliament building on Thursday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

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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 time has also come to think very carefully about what the picture will look like in the future.

Long before the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) interjected during the start of President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address, the democratic nature of SA of the past 20 years was visibly diminished by the unprecedented presence of infantry vehicles in some parts of the Cape Town city bowl.

There was also the arrest of an opposition MP in a protest outside Parliament, which was again unparalleled in the democratic era.

Also on Thursday, members of the EFF, the same party that brought proceedings to an abrupt halt last night, violated the constitutional rights of one of its own to speak his mind. EFF MP Andile Mngxitama was violently prevented from holding a press conference.

While many protested against the jamming of the mobile phone signal inside Parliament — an issue that irked opposition MPs, delayed proceedings and made it impossible for journalists to do their work — the scene had been nonchalantly set by President Jacob Zuma himself last Sunday.

He told a gathering of editors and journalists that he saw no problem with revelations that the State Security Agency (SSA) was monitoring the movements and communication of journalists in order to identify their sources and report to senior ANC politicians like Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza.

In the weeks leading up to the address, people purportedly acting for, or belonging to the SSA approached some senior journalists with offers of money to spy on the EFF. This should not be normal in an open democratic society. The entry of armed personnel into the Parliamentary chamber to remove EFF MPs, a breach of parliamentary protocol, should not come as a surprise.

Respect for the separation of powers, and the maintenance of clear boundaries for executive power have long been deemed an irritation rather than a constitutional imperative by the African National Congress.

What happened on Thursday was merely the public display of a culture that has long permeated the corridors of executive power.

The departure of the Democratic Alliance (DA) from the chamber, despite the spin that will be put on this, reduced what should be a gathering of representatives of the people into a partisan affair. It is our view that DA parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane was correct to ask Speaker Baleka Mbete to give the House the assurance that it was not the South African Police Service (SAPS) that marched into the house to remove elected MPs when Parliament is supposed to use its own security personnel.

It is characteristic of SA’s laissez faire approach to the rule of law to propose that the DA should have left the question alone for the sake of politeness, but that would be wrong. 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. The paralysis and chaos that has now become a regular feature of Parliament cannot be divorced from the bedlam in various institutions of state including the National Prosecuting Authority, sections of the SAPS and state-owned enterprises. The people should ordinarily look up to Parliament to apply the rules over the executive in order to ensure that order is restored.

What we now know is that Parliament lost a significant part of its already-eroded credibility last night, and we can’t be certain whether or when it will recover it. It is time for South Africans to think long and hard about what this portends for the future, and the nature of the political and moral inheritance those in power shall leave for the nation’s children. Something is deeply wrong if a country that claims to be democratic experiences this kind of paralysis while its citizens get used to a culture of thuggery at the highest levels.