A fistfight broke out in the South African parliament on Tuesday as security guards ejected opposition lawmakers in an ugly fracas that underlined heightened political tensions over Jacob Zuma’s presidency.
About 20 Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party members, who were wrestled from their seats by plain-clothed guards, had refused to let Zuma speak and furiously shouted down the Speaker, Baleka Mbete.
As Zuma looked on impassively, the radical leftist lawmakers – dressed in their uniform of red workers’ overalls – fought back to try to remain in the chamber until they were physically removed through a side door.
Before the guards moved in, the EFF members, led by their firebrand “commander in chief” Julius Malema, yelled that it was the president who should be thrown out.
“He broke his oath of office. Zuma is the one who must go,” they shouted.
Outside parliament, Malema told reporters and cheering supporters: “These bouncers must know that if they give violence, we will respond with violence. We are not scared.”
The disruption was the latest in a series of showdowns in parliament as pressure mounts on Zuma to resign or be axed as president by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
He has been urged to step down by a number of senior ANC veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, which brought liberation icon Nelson Mandela to power in 1994.
But he retains widespread loyalty in the party, and ANC lawmakers have regularly rallied to Zuma’s defence.
In April, they easily defeated an opposition move to impeach him.
The EFF, which was also ejected from parliament two weeks ago in similar scenes, has vowed that it will not let Zuma speak in the chamber, saying that it does not recognise him as president in the wake of two recent court cases.
In March, the country’s highest court found that Zuma had violated the constitution over the spending of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on his private rural residence at Nkandla in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
In April another court said he should face almost 800 corruption charges relating to a multi-billion dollar arms deal, that were dropped in 2009, shortly before he became president.
A packed public gallery watched the scuffles in parliament Tuesday, scores of them wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with Zuma’s picture and the slogan: “Accused No.1”.
Zuma has been wounded by months of scandals, including the sacking of two finance ministers in four days in December which rocked the markets and saw the rand currency plummet.
After recovering some ground, the rand fell sharply again on Monday after a newspaper report that the current finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, might be arrested by the Hawks, a special police unit seen as under Zuma’s influence.
Zuma is believed to have reluctantly installed the respected Gordhan in December after intervention by senior ANC leaders concerned about the crashing economy.
Gordhan has led efforts to try to restore confidence and avoid a looming downgrade of the country’s debt to junk status by the ratings agencies.
Behind the debacle at the finance ministry are allegations of graft centred on a wealthy immigrant family from India, the Guptas, who are alleged to have such influence over Zuma that they could decide ministerial appointments.
The parliament chaos comes as the country heads towards local elections in August, and some analysts predict that if the party suffers a major drop in support, Zuma may not serve out the last three years of his final term.