Don't confuse violent thuggery and race-baiting with vibrant politics
Parliament's descent into thuggery this week was an unwelcome rerun of the scenes of brutishness and intolerance that the chamber has been home to in recent years, especially during the last awful chapters of the damaging tenure of former president Jacob Zuma. Few will welcome this encore, least of all a long-suffering South African public grown wary of thieving politicians whose own interests and those of their parties always seem to trump those of the voters who put them on the comfy benches of parliament, drawing big salaries as the putative representatives of the people.
Back in early 2015, Zuma's state of the nation address was an occasion for an unseemly brawl. Just months later, to an EFF chorus of "Pay back the money!", Zuma chuckled and chortled through another chaotic session. "Nkandlaaaaa," said SA's No 1 funny man, and we all had a bit of a laugh.
The exercise served, if anything, to show the emperor in all his venal nakedness. His disregard for the people's elected representatives saw the EFF, and later the DA, launch court applications that led to chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng's historic slapdown of a delinquent president.
Few among us can claim not to have savoured Zuma's comeuppance. And because they were still a novelty back then, we all relished the sight of hooligans in red overalls and hard hats taking on Zuma, especially as he appeared able to place himself above and beyond all legal and constitutional checks on his excesses.
Perhaps we all laughed a bit too loudly, for we imagined that the last laugh would be at Zuma's expense, which it was. But at what cost to the nation? Because it now appears that a habit of unruliness and intolerance is taking root in parliament, the holy of holies of our democracy.
Can it be that we were all so keen to see the back of Zuma that we were prepared to sacrifice order, decorum and - for a moment, at least - that democracy?
The end appeared to justify the means. And it seemed to pay off, because not only did Zuma go, but awarning was sounded to future practitioners of misrule.
On social media one frequently comes across the sentiment that Zuma is missed, and that our politics is "boring" without the Nkandla Crooner. And habits, be they old or new, die hard.
Perhaps it was just a longing for the "old days" of excitement that prompted the disgraceful scenes in parliament this week: name-calling, naked racism, bottle-throwing, scuffling, punching and even a "fokof", which is surely not parliamentary regardless of how many inquiries one might throw at it.
House chair Thoko Didiza did a reasonable job of bringing this rabble to order, and has instituted proceedings against the offenders. All strength to her arm in this: there will be few who will not rejoice as the offending MPs have a heavy, bound volume of Hansard thrown their way.
But what of the deep currents of intolerance and radicalism surging through our troubled body politic? Especially with elections just months away. How can your average voter, unschooled in the niceties of democratic and parliamentary practice, be expected to show restraint towards those with whom he or she disagrees, when MPs can't be bothered to hear the other side of the story?
Also, among the bullying and bluster there were worrying signs of racial intolerance. EFF leader Julius Malema's battle cry: "I will never submit to whiteness!" may rally the hard hats, but is hardly the tenor of discourse one might expect in a nonracial democracy.
It was left to President Cyril Ramaphosa to remind MPs about the dangers of narrow nationalism and ethnic chauvinism. "We cannot go back to the horrible past we had. We cannot revert to raw racism and separatism. Let us live up to being one nation," he said.
Let's hope his is not a lone voice in a wilderness of radicalism and rancour. SA deserves better and expects more of its MPs than we were treated to this week.