CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa’s parliament descended into chaos on Thursday as opposition lawmakers were removed by force after disrupting Jacob Zuma’s annual address, an unprecedented sign of discontent at his administration.
The President’s first State of the Nation speech since his re-election last May had been billed as an opportunity to highlight the achievements of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its plans for the year ahead.
But he received a hostile reception from lawmakers from the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by firebrand former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who started to challenge him about graft allegations.
Zuma had barely begun speaking when EFF members began interrupting, demanding to ask the president about when he would repay part of a $23 million state-funded security upgrade of his rural home.
A clearly angry Speaker, Baleka Mbete, warned several EFF members to sit down before ordering they be removed by security officers, prompting a brief brawl in which several people were injured, witnesses said.
“We have seen that we are part of a police state,” Malema, whose T-shirt was torn in the fracas, told reporters after being bundled out of parliament in a scrum.
Lawmakers from the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) also left the chamber.
Zuma then delivered his speech to claps and cheers of support from ANC lawmakers as he highlighted the strides South Africa has made since the end of white-minority rule two decades ago.
The president’s popularity has been waning, however, following what was seen as extravagant spending on his rural home at taxpayers’ expense and as South Africa’s economy has slowed sharply.
DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said Mbete’s decision to call in security officers undermined democracy in South Africa, evoking how hard that had been fought for by the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela.
“She cannot escalate the issue by sending police into the chamber,” Maimane told reporters outside parliament.
“It robs the people of South Africa of what President Nelson Mandela fought for, which is the upholding of the rule of the law and the constitution.”
Malema had said before the session that he would “insist in a polite manner” that he be allowed to question Zuma on the controversial upgrades to his home in Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal province.
Last time Zuma was in parliament in August, EFF members had chanted “Pay back the money”. [ID:nL5N0QR3QG]
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said in a report last year that Zuma had “benefited unduly” from some of the upgrades, which included a cattle enclosure and amphitheatre, and should pay back some of the costs of the unnecessary renovations.
Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
ANC spokesman, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, defended the speaker’s decision to remove lawmakers from the chamber.
“We can never allow parliament to be a place where people exercise anarchy and basically try to effect a coup in parliament. It is good that it was protected,” he told ENCA Television.
South Africa’s usually calm parliament has been shaken-up by the EFF winning 25 seats in last year’s election. EFF members sport red overalls and hard hats in the chamber, in a symbol of their apparent close ties to the working classes.
Additional reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Andrew Heavens