South Africa's parliament erupted into chaos on Thursday night, with fists flying and pepper spray choking the galleries as security guards violently ejected dozens of opposition MPs into streets where riot police and troops were deployed.
It was the worst outburst of violence in parliament in years. Tensions have escalated as President Jacob Zuma has become engulfed in corruption scandals, while his government has resorted to the heavier use of police and security agents to control protests.
In previous years, MPs have been expelled, but never with the extreme force of Thursday night, which led to ugly exchanges of punches and obscenities, several injuries to MPs and security guards, repeated disruptions of Mr. Zuma's State of the Nation speech and the disturbing use of pepper spray in a public gallery.
Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille was among the victims. Sitting in a gallery above the parliamentary chamber, she was hit by wafting clouds of pepper spray and had to flee the building. "Zuma is a disgrace," she tweeted later.
It was unclear who had fired the pepper spray, and the parliamentary speaker promised an investigation.
Thousands of riot police and armed soldiers were stationed outside the parliamentary compound, sometimes blocking the movements of media and politicians. Even before Mr. Zuma's speech, police used stun grenades on the streets to disperse clashing supporters of rival parties.
Mr. Zuma ignited the latest storm of controversy by announcing on Tuesday night that he was deploying 441 troops to Cape Town to help the police "maintain law and order during the opening of Parliament where the President will deliver the State of the Nation address."
He gave no indication of the reasons for the deployment. The move was a shock to many South Africans, who have been proud of the vibrant freedoms of their country since the collapse of apartheid in 1994.
Several experts said the military deployment may have been illegal, since Mr. Zuma is not permitted to deploy soldiers unless he has given reasons to Parliament, and he cannot send security forces to Parliament unless he has obtained the permission of the Parliamentary speaker.
Despite official claims that the troops were merely an emergency backup to the police, several armed soldiers were spotted inside the parliamentary precinct on Thursday night. Earlier in the day, a convoy of military armoured vehicles was seen rolling into Cape Town, and some of the armoured vehicles were stationed in the centre of the city.
"When the executive branch – headed by the President – uses the military to intimidate political opponents by a needless show of force, it constitutes an attack on democracy," said constitutional lawyer Pierre de Vos.
"A president should never deploy members of the defence force in a show of force in and around Parliament unless the life of the nation is threatened."
As soon as Mr. Zuma attempted to give his State of the Nation speech on Thursday night, opposition MPs interrupted him and raised a series of points of order. Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party, said Mr. Zuma shouldn't be allowed to speak because he was "rotten to the core."
After 80 minutes of insults, jeering, obscenities, expulsions and violence, Mr. Zuma was finally able to give his speech. By then, all of Mr. Malema's MPs had been ejected, and other opposition MPs had walked out in protest, leaving only rows of empty benches on the opposition side.
In his speech, Mr. Zuma repeated his call for "radical economic transformation" to allow the black majority to gain a bigger share of the country's wealth. But he gave few details of any new programs to achieve this.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, said his party will go to court to challenge the deployment of police and soldiers in the parliamentary precinct.
"The violence and disorder witnessed this evening is the direct result of a corrupt political party clinging onto power by using fear tactics and intimidation," he said.