What MPs' scuffles reveal about South Africa's democracy

Badges showing the portraits of former South African president Nelson Mandela and current South African president Jacob Zuma with the logo of ruling African National Congress (ANC) party are sold during a march organised by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to support the ruling ANC party in Durban, on 26 April 2014 Image copyright AFP

From the outside it might seem like relatively minor stuff - scuffles and anger in South Africa's parliament, and defections and splits within a trades union federation.

But make no mistake - these are crucial, perhaps even momentous, times for South African politics.

A status quo that has survived for 20 years of democracy is finally beginning to crack.

There is a chance this could be a good thing for South Africa - that a clumsy consensus that served the country well in the years after apartheid is no longer fit for purpose, and that a more nuanced, contested form of democracy may now take over.

But the governing African National Congress (ANC) does not see it like that, warning loudly that "fascists" and "racists" are threatening the survival of the institutions that have kept this country stable since 1994.

Much now depends on the way the ANC - after two decades of unchallenged power - deals with a more robust opposition in parliament, the erosion of a key political alliance with the trade union movement, and the dawning possibility that it may soon lose power in two of South Africa's nine provinces - and one day at a national level too.

Rowdy and energised

Thursday's fighting in parliament can be traced directly to two immediate factors - one is the recent influx of MPs from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The EFF stormed the Gauteng legislature after their trademark red overalls were banned from the chamber
Image copyright AFP
Image caption MPs in the national parliament attend most sessions in workers' uniforms

They are unapologetically rowdy and populist, and have energised - not always in a constructive way - an institution that many South Africans, numbed by the ANC's overwhelming majority, had apparently stopped caring about.

The second factor is called Nkandla - the scandal about the lavish tax-payer-funded renovations to President Jacob Zuma's private home that will not disappear.

Although many senior ANC figures have privately expressed deep unease about the issue, the party has publically rallied around the president in strident fashion.

The last straw - well, one of many - came in the shape of an ad-hoc parliamentary committee that exonerated Mr Zuma of any personal wrongdoing, after opposition members had left it in frustration.

The ANC then used its majority to adopt the committee's report on Thursday.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The improvements at Nkandla included a swimming pool and cattle enclosure

South Africa's opposition is usually divided in parliament - and outside - to the advantage of the ANC.

But Nkandla has seen political rivals united against the governing party with unusual vigour and co-ordination.

It could be a sign of things to come - an opposition coalition one day strong enough to challenge the ANC's majority.

All of which helps explain why the current chaos in South Africa's trade union movement is also giving the ANC real cause for concern.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has been in a strategic tri-partite alliance with the ANC and Communist Party - an arrangement that helped keep stability and achieve some progress in the labour market for decades.

But a combination of factors - including falling membership, political rivalries, and incidents like the Marikana mine killings of 2012 - have led to a deep split, with the biggest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), now expelled from Cosatu.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Opposition parties have united over the Nkandla scandal

A more competitive, vibrant trade union movement - decoupled from its leaders' increasingly cosy pact with government - may not necessarily be a bad thing for South Africa, at a time when the economy is struggling and business, government and labour urgently need to re-evaluate their relationships.

Challenging times

But again, the ANC is unlikely to react enthusiastically.

It has only to glance north, towards Zimbabwe, to see the potential challenge that a well-organised, union-based party can offer to a seemingly robust liberation movement.

Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has not ultimately triumphed in the way many predicted, but that may have as much to do with rigged elections and violence as with its own internal flaws.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Numsa was expelled from Cosatu a week ago

The likelihood of a new trade union party sweeping to power in South Africa is vastly overstated.

This country already has a crowded opposition scene.

But it would certainly take more votes away from the ANC and push the governing party closer towards electoral defeat.

In other words, these are increasingly challenging times for South Africa's ANC.

Will it tackle corruption, improve service delivery, harness its prodigious talents, and earn the right to many more years in power?

Or will it scream "fascists" at every new challenge, ignore court orders, and - as some already fear - start to chip away at the impartiality of the independent electoral system that has served this democracy so well?

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