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As parliament burned, South Africans took to social media to react. Shock and sorrow at the loss of the country’s iconic buildings that house its democracy was the predominant response. Yet as the extent of the destruction became clear some public figures sought to exploit political capital from it, expressing jubilation and even victory. Such a response betrays SA’s unique democratic history and represents a growing shift in sentiment towards the violent revolutionary philosophy that threatens the republic’s values.
While investigations are continuing and with one person faces charges, the motivations behind his starting the fire are unknown. Regardless of intention, the destruction of parliament does have two major points of political significance. The first is the inevitability that basic administrative failings of the state, which have become synonymous with ANC governance, were at least partially responsible for the extent of the destruction. The City of Cape Town’s incident report, released on Friday and based on initial observations from firefighters, catalogues the failings that support this view. They include faulty fire alarms, sprinklers that weren’t maintained and didn’t activate, and outdated first-aid equipment.
Systemic failings of government that have become endemic to public administration and service delivery are widely acknowledged. But the lack of adequate safety in parliament exposes the extent and depth of the mismanagement. If such basic failings can take place in a building of the utmost national importance, they can take place anywhere in SA.
The inability of the ANC to protect the country’s priority buildings from its own mismanagement is a symbolic reflection of the vulnerability of the state. This was further underlined by the publication of the first part of the Zondo state capture commission’s report, which confirmed how the cycle of corruption and negligence represent a chronic impediment to government’s ability to rule.
The second area of political significance lies in the celebration of some public figures of the literal burning of SA’s past, and how it offers warnings for the country’s future, particularly in the context of the state’s current vulnerability. As firefighters battled to contain the blaze the Sunday before last, the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi tweeted to his 1.4-million followers that the “beautiful fire ... allows us to start from scratch! A clean slate”.
Meanwhile, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, Jacob Zuma’s daughter, tweeted: “Cape Town ... We See You! Amandla”. These tweets triggered hundreds of sympathetic comments, many of which suggested the destruction of parliament could be a “baptism by fire” from which political transformation can be achieved. The idea that fire and violence, whether deliberate or accidental, is a legitimate and necessary tool for societal change, ultimately derives from violent revolutionary philosophy.
Armed resistance was a significant part of extra-parliamentary opposition to apartheid, notably after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 when the Pan Africanist Congress and ANC shifted from non-violence. Political violence from sporadic groups continued into the mid-1990s, but apartheid was ultimately dismantled through a process of reform, and relatively peaceful transition of power was facilitated by multigroup negotiations and the courage of political leaders. The triumph of negotiated settlement over the methods of violent revolution defied the historical odds of the 20th century, which saw several minority-rule regimes collapse after being engulfed in racial war, such as in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe.
SA’s unlikely achievement, which brought oppressor and oppressed together in a spirit of national reconciliation, formed an integral part of the republic’s post-1994 identity. But I fear comments lauding parliament’s destruction represent an increasing shift away from these values and a growing normalisation of political violence. This distortion of SA values has been championed by the EFF and the ANC’s Zuma faction, fuelled by mass impatience at slow economic progress and empowered by the weakness of state institutions.
The tweets represent a narrative to exploit political capital from an otherwise non-political event. But the unrest that engulfed Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July, encouraged by the EFF and members of the Zuma family, served as a clear demonstration of how the words of a few can lead to action by many. The civil disobedience was sufficiently politically instigated to the extent that the Mbeki Foundation described it as a “counter-revolutionary insurgency”. The widening of the unrest into mass looting, beyond its initial protest against Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court, reflected SA’s increasing vulnerability to violence.
Poor socioeconomic conditions, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, have created fertile ground for political violence and civil disobedience to escalate into mass lawlessness. Those who advocate violence do so knowing its potential for escalation. It is a conscious strategy to orchestrate chaos from which revolution can be advanced.
As the fire reignited the day after it appeared to have been extinguished Ndlozi again took to Twitter, claiming that “Tragedy is not [an] apartheid symbol burning down”. This simplification surrenders exclusive historical ownership of parliament to the perpetrators of apartheid and disregards the acts of resistance, liberation and national rebirth that took place there. As Oscar van Heerden wrote last week, “It was here that apartheid laws were promulgated and it was here that both slavery and apartheid were ultimately defeated.”
The EFF also called for parliament to be relocated to Tshwane in the wake of the fire. I believe doing so would undermine the symbolic righting of historical wrongs that keeping parliament in Cape Town achieves. Every day that South Africans of all ethnicities, elected under universal suffrage, sit in parliament is a victory over those who sought to keep them out. While great economic injustices still plague the country, it is sound policy and competent leadership, rather than cosmetic or geographic change of legislative buildings, that will alleviate suffering.
As an intern in parliament in August 2010 I witnessed a huge protest outside the entrance gates. I was moved at the sight of thousands of South Africans gathered and singing outside their house of democracy, but also by the dozens of MPs who greeted them. The protest was aimed at the government of the time, not at governments that came before it. That day served as a visual demonstration to myself that parliament fulfils its most basic function as a focal point for democracy.
When defining parliament’s legacy we must acknowledge that its history of birthing democracy is as significant as its history of repression. Celebrating the building’s destruction does not erase its heinous history, but it does dishonour those who liberated it. Moving parliament would be a fruitless distraction and gimmick. The true lessons of parliament’s fire can help guide the next chapter of its legacy to meet South Africans’ unrealised expectations — but only if we embrace parliament’s full history in the spirit of reconciliation.
• Schwarz is a UK-based writer and political commentator.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.