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JOHANNESBURG – The South African parliament is supposed to be a sanctuary for decorum. These days, it is anything but.
On Tuesday, an opposition party complained in parliament that their leader had been called a "cockroach" by the assembly speaker. A top member of another opposition group said President Jacob Zuma, who was in the chamber at the time, was "not an honorable man" but a "broken man, presiding over a broken society."
Last week, security guards entered parliament to remove opposition lawmakers who disrupted Zuma's annual state of the nation address to demand that he answer questions about use of millions of dollars in state funds to upgrade his private home. The ruckus came the same week that South Africa was marking the 25th anniversary of the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who said he cherished parliament and other democratic institutions after the 1994 end of white racist rule.
Parliamentary debates are now more heated largely because of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party that wants to redistribute resources to the poor and entered parliament for the first time after elections in May. Its members, who wear red overalls and occasionally red plastic helmets, tussled with guards who ejected them from the chamber on Thursday as Zuma waited to speak.
Then National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete reportedly made harsh remarks about Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, in an address to a provincial ANC meeting on Saturday. Malema is a former head of the youth league of the ruling African National Congress who was kicked out of the party.
She said people should mobile to support the ANC and its programs, then later added "Because if we don't, we will continue to have the cockroaches like the Malemas ... all over the place," Mbete said, according to a tape of the speech posted by eNCA, a local TV news outlet.
Mbete should apologize for the "inflammatory" remark, a human rights center at the University of Pretoria said in a statement. It recalled the prelude to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when Hutu leaders referred to Tutsis as cockroaches, implying they should be annihilated.
Mbete did not attend parliament on Tuesday. The presiding officer, Thandi Modise, drew laughter when she acknowledged the "insect matter."
"Honorable member" is a formal term of address for lawmakers during parliamentary debates, even when they get vehement. Mmusi Maimane, a senior member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, stretched the bounds when he addressed Zuma.
"Please understand, honorable president, when I use the term `honorable,' I do it out of respect for the traditions and conventions of this august House," Maimande said. "But please do not take it literally. For you, honorable president, are not an honorable man."
Zuma was mostly impassive. Television showed him smiling thinly on occasion.