08/02/2017 03:21 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 09:08 GMT

Zuma Is Deploying Troops To Parliament During Sona, And We Should Be Worried

President Jacob Zuma is under pressure. A show of force is expected but dangerous.


South Africa, be afraid: this year's opening of Parliament might be the most militarised parliamentary event yet. Not even at the height of apartheid and the rule of P.W. Botha's securocrats, with the army engaged in Angola and ANC insurgents operating in townships, was parliament itself enveloped in such a heightened sense of security. The media will, for the first time in recent memory, be managed, chaperoned and boxed in, which will prevent it from reporting freely and accurately about what is sure to be an eventful evening.

President Jacob Zuma's announcement late on Tuesday that he decided to deploy 441 soldiers to Parliament "to maintain law and order" might not look like such a big deal, but the use of men and women with maiming and killing as their main skills set reveals a president almost Trumpian in his insecurity.

Opposition parties have reacted with outrage against the decision, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) saying it will urgently request a meeting with parliamentary Speaker and ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) interpreting Zuma's edict as a direct assault on it.

Parliament has been a fraught place ever since EFF leader Julius Malema's overall-clad commissars were elected in 2014. Sessions of the National Assembly when Zuma has appeared have regularly been blighted by interruptions, and sometimes violence, while violent protests have also erupted outside and on the parliamentary precinct in the recent past.

The EFF's tactics, initially novel and unsettling, now just boorish and disruptive, is a direct result of Zuma's evasion of parliamentary oversight and accountability, with the ANC being entirely complicit in undermining the constitutional functions of the legislature. This has spilt over into civil society, that has cottoned on to the opportunities for public and visible dissent that the grand opening of Parliament presents.

The presidential coach and entourage traditionally travels down Adderley Street, with uniformed members of the security services lining the streets and the president enjoying the pomp and circumstance that is afforded to the democratic South African head of state.

Arriving at the gate in Parliament Avenue, next to the Slave Lodge and the Marks Building at the bottom end of the precinct, he is then slowly escorted by Parliament's officials to Stalplein and the National Assembly where he receives a 21-gun salute.

All this can be disrupted via protest action, protected by those pesky freedoms that democracy guarantees to those who wish to publicly register their aversion to the current political leadership.

If only it were that simple, though.

In 2015, David Mahlobo, the minister of state security and a ranking member of Zuma's praetorian guard, started with the hyper-securitisation of Parliament by blocking cellphone signals in the National Assembly to prevent the media from covering the EFF's disruptions, obviously embarrassing to Zuma. It was also the year in which the infamous "white shirts" showed up on the floor of the debating chamber, violently removing MP's whom Mbete objected to.

The Constitution and Defence Act is very clear about prescribing when and how the army can be deployed within the country's borders. According to law, this can only happen under very specific circumstances and only in conjunction with the police, who are constitutionally mandated to maintain internal law and order.

The president must clearly and comprehensively explain to Parliament why the army is deployed. Zuma's curt statement -– 441 soldiers, until February 10 and for the maintenance of law and order –- is not good enough and seems merely to serve the imperative that he informs the legislature.

The reason why the Constitution governs the deployment of the military is to prevent it being abused for political purposes: whether to quell revolt, to prop up illegitimate leadership or as a show of force. Zuma is seemingly abusing his powers as head of state to use the army as a show of force. He has in the past enlisted the services of Mahlobo and Mbete to clamp down on unrest outside and inside Parliament.

Professor Pierre de Vos, constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town, says the deployment "appears to be a flagrant breach of the separation of powers" and that the executive cannot deploy soldiers to another branch of government, like the legislature. In a Facebook post, he refers to the Constitutional Court's judgment in DA vs Speaker of the National Assembly, where the court said the temptation of the improper use of state organs (like the army and the police) cannot be discounted, even in a democracy.

"For Parliament to properly exercise its oversight function over the executive, it must operate in an environment that guarantees members freedom of arrest, detention, prosecution or harassment of whatever nature. Absent this freedom parliament may be cowed, with the result that oversight over the executive might be illusory," De Vos quotes the court.

Zuma is a president under siege and under pressure. His network of patronage is starting to unravel, and a show of force –- much like is the case with his bombastic counterpart in the White House –- is all that remains.