- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
South Africa’s simmering political crisis finally boiled over Thursday evening. What was supposed to be the South African president’s annual address erupted into fistfights and chaos in a bizarre incident that put the controversy over President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-plagued government on full display.
On Thursday, Zuma filed into the parliament to deliver his annual state of the nation address to cheers from his supporters and loud jeers from opposition parties.
Then, as he stood up to speak, opposition parliamentarians immediately stood up to speak over him — and didn’t really stop for over an hour. Members of the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters hurled accusations at Zuma for being corrupt and flouting the constitution while he sat quietly waiting for the jeers to die down to begin his speech.
Then, the EFF’s leader yelled that security guards armed with cable ties and “injections with biological weapons” were outside the parliament waiting to detain MPs. He also yelled at the speaker of parliament for being used by Zuma. “You went home, you slaughtered a cow, and he dumped you!” he yelled. It’s unclear what he meant there.
And then security guards came in to remove the rowdy EFF. That’s when the fistfight started:
Here’s the brawl from another angle:
Zuma was purportedly heard chuckling from a live mic during the fight, while guests in the public gallery trying to watch what was supposed to be their president’s speech were pepper-sprayed.
After the EFF was removed, one MP repeatedly yelled “F*CK YOU!” while others chanted “racists” and “no dogs here!” to MPs in opposing parties.
Meanwhile, outside the parliament, police used stun grenades to quell protests against Zuma that briefly turned riotous:
— Jacaranda News (@JacaNews) February 9, 2017
After the chaos subsided, Zuma took to the stage to give an address on how 2017 was going to be a year of “unity in action” while half of the parliament stood up and walked out.
Zuma, a president with four wives but only 783 corruption charges against him, has hemorrhaged political support for the African National Congress that’s ruled the country since 1994 after the end of the apartheid era.
He weathered three no confidence votes from parliament in the last year after he was caught in a major corruption scandal in 2016. In February, Zuma’s government suffered another blow when reports emerged that nearly 100 mental health patients died of starvation and negligence in the government’s care. That was a “major mobilizing force” for the opposition heading into Zuma’s national address, Atlantic Council Africa expert Chloe McGrath told Foreign Policy.
McGrath said many weren’t surprised by the chaos. “Fist fights, racial slurs, pepper spray… are no longer an unusual occurrence in South Africa,” she said. “The country is in a state of political crisis, and yet somehow, Zuma persists, seemingly un-phased by the country falling to pieces around him,” she said.
Photo credit: SUMAYA HISHAM/AFP/Getty Images