Parliament a hangover of our colonial past

Parliamentary session
Parliamentary session
Image: Esa Alexander

South Africa’s colonial legacy still penetrates most institutions instrumental in decision making.

Our democratic structures, not only in terms of architecture but also procedure, are colonial and apartheid inheritances.

The paradox in this reality looms so large, yet to know present day South Africa is to accept paradox as truth.

Legal scholar, Tshepo Madlingozi, posed a critical question on Twitter about the state of South Africa’s parliament.

“They struggle to flow in English – their 4th or 5th language; they struggle to interpret Westminster parliamentary rules; the whole setting is culturally alienating & psychically-harrowing to them. It’s bizarre. Is this parliamentary system the best model for this country? What would a decolonised parliament look like?”, he said.

These are questions we should all be contemplating when we imagine an inclusive nation building project and a decolonised society. That the judicial and parliamentary backbone of our African society has the blood of Europe, our colonisers, running through it raises some interesting questions about the failings of our 25-year-old democracy.

In considering the “new South Africa” as it is so often symbolised, we should deliberately remain conscious that no new games can commence where the old rules are still being used. We cannot build an inclusive, free South Africa when the work required to do that is bound by the structures that were established to enslave us.

The performance of colonial respectability in the way that parliament demands people carry themselves once inside is a policing second to none.

What is considered appropriate attire, tone, body language, mode of engagement informs some of the most uncomfortable and inorganic performances of parliamentarism observable. Culturally alienated MPs are in a set up designed for them to fail, repeatedly.

By implication, this set up works in favour of those who are at the centre of the culture or have successfully assimilated and adapted. MP Belinda Bozzoli, clearly demonstrates this through her comfort with lamenting the loudness of Black MPs and their audacity to sing struggle songs in attempts to own parliament.

Behaviours and modes of expression that are clearly and unashamedly African remain stigmatised as annoying and affrontive to parliamentary conduct and whiteness.

How then, under such circumstances, although we remain unashamed, can we say our parliament is ours? Statements that lament the displays of African pride and commemoration of African struggles in an African parliament imply that it is still out of place and in violation of parliamentary rules.

How do we sit comfortably with Africanness being, even just through discourse, in conflict with anything located in Africa? For such a suggestion to swirl through the public domain undeterred is an insult to the Africans who laid down their lives for the liberation of Africa.

To come back to Madlingozi’s final question, what would a decolonised parliament look like?

From this vantage point it looks like a lot of work. The work would require delving into the agreements that were made to enable such continued, although subtle, disregard for African customs, mannerisms and modes of expressions which relegate Africans to visitors in their own home.

If we are to start thinking about what it could look like, disrupting wanton disrespect for African ways of being could lend insights into a future free from the protest of colonising voices which continue to centre themselves.

We have seen disruptions of parliament descending into violence, which have been met with disdain. Although, many do not see the value in violence, the source of this violence remains the colonial rules some MPs refuse to yield to.

In response to their refusal, they are met with corrective action. How do we penalise a protest against coloniality more harshly than a protest against Africanness?

It would seem that before we embark on this journey of decolonisation, a more odious truth needs to be unpacked about how an African-led government came to accept systems that constrain them in ways that reproduce coloniality.

Jamil F. Khan is a PhD Critical Diversity Studies Candidate.

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