The SANDF will not be deployed within the parliamentary precinct and the City of Cape Town unless there is a calamity during the State of the Nation Address, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Wednesday. The 441 South African National Defence force members would merely be on standby in case police needed their help, she told News24 in a telephonic interview. There was nothing untoward or illegal about this.
“The story is that we are deploying the SANDF within the parliamentary precinct. There is no truth to it.”
Police would be inside the precinct and, if the need arose, the SANDF would be called in. This would only happen in a worst case scenario.
She was reacting to the uproar that followed President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on Tuesday that 441 soldiers would be deployed at Parliament for his State of the Nation Address on Thursday. The DA said it violated the separation of powers. The EFF called it a “declaration of war”.
Mapisa-Nqakula dismissed accusations by opposition parties that the move was an abuse of power.
By Ms Phephelaphi Dube: Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights
The President will Thursday, in an address to South Africans at large, speak on the nation’s current affairs. As the head of the Executive, he is expected to speak frankly on the nation’s political, as well socio-economic status quo, while giving the nation hope that despite sluggish economic growth and other ills, there are still many things for which South Africans may be glad. As has come to be custom, the opposition benches will heckle the President while he speaks.
The courts have ruled decisively that Members of Parliament may not be removed from the room for expressing themselves, however displeasing such expression may be to the presiding officer – so one does not expect a repeat of last year’s violent scenes. But this year, in the run-up to the Address, there are some unexpected developments, such as the deployment of members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to “maintain law and order”. Unexpected too, is the news that journalists will allegedly be placed in two “media squares”, with movement only permitted when accompanied by two police escorts.
The President may, in terms of the Constitution and the Defence Act, authorise the use of the SANDF in certain circumstances to preserve the “law and order in the Republic”. However, such deployment of the SANDF to the precincts of Parliament can only be justified in exceptional circumstances. Those exceptional circumstances – in this instance – simply do not exist, given that the South African Police Services (SAPS) and Parliament’s own security personnel have, in the past, proven themselves capable of quelling skirmishes arising during the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Even then, their heavy-handed approach towards certain Members of Parliament has been roundly criticised by civil society and the courts alike. Bear in mind too, that the Defence Act forbids the SANDF from acting in a partisan fashion or from furthering any interests of a political party. The Defence Act further enjoins the SANDF to respect the rights and dignity of all persons.
The nation’s foundational values include transparency, openness and accountability, and the very presence of the SANDF, ostensibly to maintain law and order, fails to foster these values. Parliament, in terms of the Constitution, is meant to be a public platform for the consideration of all issues which affect the nation and as such, Parliament’s default position should be one that encourages public participation. This deployment of the SANDF appears to be a show of might, calculated to possibly cower dissenters.
The Media too plays a vital function in assisting South Africans realise their rights. An active and inquiring media – not one which is potentially confined to lame duck status in a “media square” and acting under guidance from the SAPS – is vital for the nation’s democracy to thrive. Further, the symbolism behind placing the media in a “media square” should not be lost. Ostensibly placing the media in a “box” can only be an intimidation tactic, and curtailment of the movement of the media could be viewed as an attempt at stifling the dissemination of information. Access to information is vital for ordinary South Africans to engage meaningfully in public life. The media assists the public to enjoy the right to access Parliament. As it appears, there are no compelling reasons to justify the attempt to curtail the reach of the media during the SONA.
This creeping securitisation of SONA perhaps speaks to a bigger question – why has the President come to be so fearful of citizens of the country he governs?
The courts have ruled decisively that Members of Parliament may not be removed from the room for expressing themselves, however displeasing such expression may be to the presiding officer