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S.Africa’s Zuma under fire over chaos in parliament

South African president Jacob Zuma/FILE

South African president Jacob Zuma/FILE

Cape Town, Feb 18 – “Cockroach”, “hooligan”, “broken man” — insults flew thick and fast Tuesday among top South African politicians after a keynote address by the president to parliament last week ended in unprecedented chaos.

Opposition leaders launched bitter attacks against President Jacob Zuma as they got their first chance to reply to his State of the Nation Address last Thursday, which was disrupted by police entering the national assembly to evict lawmakers who accused him of corruption.

“You are not an honourable man,” Mmusi Maimane, the parliamentary leader of the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, told Zuma.

“You are a broken man presiding over a broken society,” said Maimane, looking Zuma in the eye as he spoke from the podium.

Maimane described the forcible eviction of MPs by armed security forces as “an assault on the foundations of our democracy”.

When he complained that Zuma had laughed as lawmakers from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party were manhandled out of parliament, Zuma laughed again.

Next up at the podium was EFF leader Julius Malema, described last week by the Speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, as a “cockroach”.

The term has a terrible resonance in Africa after it was used to set Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Malema has said Mbete, who is also chairperson of the ruling African National Congress, was inciting people to kill him.

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When reporters pressed Mbete over her remarks at a briefing ahead of Tuesday’s session, she refused to comment, saying she had made the remark at an ANC gathering and therefore it was not parliamentary business.

– ‘Not scared of Zuma’ –

Dressed in the EFF’s trademark red worksuit as he took to the podium, Malema called Zuma a “hooligan” for the tactics used to evict his MPs — including “pulling us with our private parts”.

“We are not scared of you,” he warned a grinning Zuma.

“Whatever it takes, and however long it takes, by whatever revolutionary means, we will take over this country with the aim of total liberation and emancipation.”

Malema also referred to the issue at the heart of the row — the EFF’s demands that Zuma pay back the taxpayers’ money spent on $24 million (21 million euros) upgrades to his private rural residence.

But, he said, that would be left until presidential question time on March 11 — setting the stage for yet another parliamentary showdown.

South Africa’s media have also been outraged by the scrambling of mobile phone signals in parliament ahead of last week’s chaos, and have taken court action to prevent it happening again.

Finding that the signal was cut and that they would be unable to file text or pictures from parliament, reporters joined opposition lawmakers in an extraordinary revolt — chanting “Bring back the signal”, an echo of the EFF’s rallying cry of “Pay back the money”.

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After some delay the signal was restored and pictures and words soon flowed out of parliament as fists flew and the MPs were ejected.

Speaker Mbete has denied that parliament ordered the scrambling of the signal and told journalists they were “not the target”, but she admitted that she had been “aware that there was a plan for certain equipment to be deployed”.

She said a “department of state” — later revealed to be the national intelligence agency — had operated the jamming device, but did not say who or what the target was.

A group including major media houses, the South African National Editors’ Forum and rights organisations made an urgent application in the Western Cape High Court Tuesday for the prohibition of any further use of scrambling equipment in parliament.

The case was postponed until next Tuesday.

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