South Africa

Gauteng Legislature’s Fashion Police: winning a day battle, losing a PR war

By Greg Nicolson 2 July 2014

Everyone was looking to EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema for Parliamentary theatrics, but it was in the Gauteng Legislature where the party caused the biggest stir. One provincial member has a broken arm. Two were admitted for medical treatment. It seems that in the hallowed halls on President Street, the dress code is taken rather seriously. Asijiki. By GREG NICOLSON.

Like Cope in 2009, the EFF’s performance in its inaugural elections was a resounding success. It rode a wave of populism and tapped into discontent using strident rhetoric focusing on a demand for  socialist policies and increased transformation. Who better to tear holes in the ANC’s “good story” than a mix of former party leaders like Malema and civil society militants like Andile Mngxitama? The next step was to the legislative bodies, and everyone wanted to know if the rabble-rousers could play by the rules.

Malema used his maiden address to perfection. In opposition, with fewer seats then the DA, there’s little the EFF can really do but try to bolster their position for future elections. Malema took swipes at the ANC but withdrew on trifling points of order, like whether Blade Nzimande should be called “honourable”. His accusation that the ANC murdered people in Marikana wasn’t withdrawn. So Honourable Juju, ever the public relations expert, was thrown out of Parliament while proving a point.

The Gauteng Fighters weren’t as deft. In fact, they never got a chance to speak. According to media reports, the party’s eight members in the Provincial Legislature were asked to leave after speaker Ntombi Mekgwe (the woman tipped to be premier before David Makhura took the throne) deemed their outfits inappropriate. True to their word, the EFF members came to work in red overalls and domestic worker’s uniforms. Some of the uniforms featured the word Asijiki, a phrase associated with Malema and Co.’s rise from the ashes of the ANC Youth League. It means, “We will not turn back”. (Party insignia is specifically barred from the Legislature.)

A photograph taken by The Star’s Itumeleng English, who hid in the House when officials tried to prevent the media from capturing the fiasco, shows the EFF’s Mgcina Tshwaku’s overalls with “Asijiki” printed on the left breast with police surrounding him.

Tshwaku, along with EFF MPLs Benjamin Disolwane and Parks Khaiyane, needed medical help after a scuffle when police officers forcefully removed them. The party’s Gauteng coordinator Omphile Maotwe said Disolwane’s arm was broken while officers – she claimed there were up to 50 – handcuffed him. Khaiyane, who remains in hospital, was thrown down the stairs and Tshwaku suffered an asthma attack, said Maotwe.

“Asijiki” isn’t part of the party’s insignia, she claimed, and the EFF logo featured nowhere on the uniforms. “They are terribly scared,” she said of the ANC. “They are shaken, especially here in Gauteng.” She suggested the party didn’t want the EFF to respond to Premier David Makhura’s State of the Province Address. The party’s Advocate Dali Mpofu met with Mekgwe on Wednesday after the EFF wasn’t allowed to enter the legislature, again due to their outfits. According to Maotwe, the Speaker told Mpofu she wouldn’t change her decision.

A statement from the Secretary to the Legislature issued by Peter Skosana said Mekgwe referred the EFF members to the Legislature’s dress code and a ruling on 4 November 2011, which said members must dress in a manner fitting with the decorum of the House and couldn’t display party affiliation. On Tuesday, after the Legislature took a recess to allow the members to leave as ordered, Skosana said they refused to comply. “They then continued to conduct themselves in a grossly disorderly manner which is unbecoming of a member of the legislature, disrupted the proceedings of the House and manhandled officials, security and members of the South African Police Services who were called upon to accompany them out of the House.”

The conduct of the EFF members has been referred for investigation to the integrity commissioner. The party meanwhile may be likely to take the matter to court.

The DA’s former leader in the Legislature, Jack Bloom, said the EFF was stubborn but the matter was also poorly handled. The Gauteng Legislature has a dress code, unlike the National Assembly, that has been upheld in the past and generally requires members to wear formal attire or traditional wear. After their induction, the EFF members were aware of this and should have expected the challenge. Crucially, Bloom also said that in the Legislature you don’t defy the Speaker. Rule number one. Instead, you take up disagreements with her decisions afterwards.

“I think it was completely botched, very poorly handled,” said Bloom on the the situation that got out of hand. “It got ridiculous.”

Having the EFF, which already claims affiliation to issues like Marikana, forcefully removed from the Legislature is bad PR for the ANC. Its defenders were quick to attack the new members. ANC Chief Whip Brian Hlongwa “noted with disgust the unbecoming behaviour of the EFF members” and reminded them they needed to act as custodians of democratic institutions.

The SACP retrieved its thesaurus. A statement from its Gauteng wing said the “conduct of the EFF represent[s] an extremely backward, lumpen and chaotic tendency of anarchy with a mix of right-wing, populist and demagogic slant”. It continued, “[The] SACP wish to reiterate that there is nothing revolutionary in defying democratic rules of the people, and that any serious revolution should have integrity, decency and virtue and that anarchy is not anywhere closer to this revolutionary principles.”

The EFF leadership meanwhile described their removal as a class issue, a battle of the overalls versus the suits. Spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi responded in a statement: “The EFF will never be bossed around to abandon the worker overalls in Parliaments across the country because this is who it represents. No amount of beating by the ANC police will ever submit the EFF into abandoning the red overalls and domestic workers’ dress codes. Legislature is a place of work and it must represent the people: EFF is there to say the regalia of workers is also welcome in the Houses of Parliament as part of respectable and honourable decorum.”

As a party slogan, it would seem “Asijiki” fails this test. It’s baffling, however, that three people ended up injured while being evicted from an institution they were elected to, where free speech must be upheld, over a dress code, and it reflects poorly on the ANC’s leadership, the EFF’s stubbornness and the police’s ability to handle, well, anyone. And we wonder why there’s such violence at service delivery protests.

EFF leader Malema will address media on the issue on Thursday. Once again the smaller opposition party has all the media attention, but the ANC make it far too easy for them. DM

Photo: A photograph taken by The Star’s Itumeleng English, who hid in the House when officials tried to prevent the media from capturing the fiasco, shows the EFF’s Mgcina Tshwaku’s overalls with “Asijiki” printed on the left breast with police surrounding him.

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