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The burning of Parliament poses a threat to our nascent democracy

FILE – The burning of Parliament should not be taken lightly and the underlying issues pose a serious challenge to our democracy, says the writer. In this file photo from January 3, 2022, firefighters battled the fire that started at Parliament's National Assembly Chamber. File photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

FILE – The burning of Parliament should not be taken lightly and the underlying issues pose a serious challenge to our democracy, says the writer. In this file photo from January 3, 2022, firefighters battled the fire that started at Parliament's National Assembly Chamber. File photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jan 9, 2022

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OPINION: The burning of Parliament should not be taken lightly. The underlying issues (both known and unknown) pose a serious challenge to our democracy. Unless we know for sure how and why this incident happened, we have more reason to be worried, writes Bheki Mngomezulu.

The news about the burning of the Parliament building in Cape Town came as a shock to many of us who love this country. The fact that something like this was unprecedented raised serious questions which are yet to be answered.

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As if this was not enough, South Africans were shocked once again by the news that the Constitutional Court building had been attacked by a 36-year-old man. This latest development further compounded the problem of the attack on our national institutions.

What can we glean from this burning of our national Parliament? What does this mean for our nascent democracy? These are the questions I will confine myself to.

To answer the first question, there is no doubt that this incident poses a threat to our democracy. The manner in which the incident happened does not make sense. The alleged culprit, Mr Zandile Christmas Mafe, raises even more questions. The identification of this alleged culprit has triggered many questions posed below.

How did the man allegedly gain access to a national key point undetected? What does this say about our security system? Why would he do such a thing – in other words, what did he hope to gain? Who sent or assisted him? Where did he get the material he used to burn our parliament?

These questions are prompted by the fact that looking at this man (Mafe), he looks disoriented and unsettled. To me, he does not even look like someone who knows how to operate a simple smartphone, let alone computers. If that is the case, there is obviously more to this incident than we are made to believe.

As such, to answer the second question posed above, we should be more concerned as South Africans about the future of our country and our hard-fought democracy. It appears to me that our democracy is under severe threat. This is so because Parliament, as an institution, is the heart of the nation in the same manner that the Constitution as a document is the heart of the nation.

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I have been following this story with keen interest and have made several comments on different media platforms. What worries me even more are the comments made by some of our political leaders and their political parties.

When MP Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi called this ‘a beautiful fire’, I was deeply concerned. I respect Ndlozi, not just as a politician but also as an academic of note.

To hear something like this coming from him left me distraught. I labelled his statement as ‘political negligence’ then as I do now. He may have said it innocently, but as a leader, he should have anticipated the possible interpretation of his statement.

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It is a known fact that Ndlozi’s party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), is on record saying that parliament should relocate from Cape Town. There is nothing wrong with such a proposal.

However, there are proper channels that the party could use to make that argument. In fact, this is not a new proposal. To argue that the burning of parliament should afford us as a nation the opportunity to relocate parliament was unwarranted.

There are two things that seem to elude some of our politicians. The first one is when they argue that Parliament should be moved from Cape Town because it was built by colonial masters. Factually, this is a correct statement. However, it is misplaced. The Union Buildings were also built by colonial masters, so are the buildings in the Free State. Therefore, this argument does not hold ground.

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The second mistake that is made by our politicians is when they argue that Parliament should be moved to Gauteng or Tshwane. Anyone who knows South Africa’s geography or the South African map will confirm that Tshwane is not centrally located.

The argument that would make sense would be to say that both the buildings in Cape Town and Tshwane should cease to serve as Parliament buildings and be used for other purposes and that parliament should be consolidated in the Free State. The latter is somewhat central compared to both Cape Town and Tshwane.

In a nutshell, my view is that the burning of Parliament should not be taken lightly. The underlying issues (both known and unknown) pose a serious challenge to our democracy. Unless we know for sure how and why this incident happened, we have more reason to be worried.

My plea is that our politicians and their political parties should put their political egos aside and join hands to address this issue conclusively. The fact that even the Constitutional Court was attacked buttresses my concerns about the fate of our democracy. If our democratic institutions are under attack, so is our democracy.

* Mngomezulu is a Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of Western Cape.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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