Testifying before the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into the arms deal on Thursday, Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille recalled the moment in September 1999, when she brought the House down. In the National Assembly, De Lille belted out a list of names of ANC leaders and politically connected individuals, whom she claimed who benefitted or were involved in corruption relating to the arms acquisition.
It was one of the most dramatic episodes in parliamentary politics. Had De Lille made the claims anywhere else, she would probably have been sued for accusing high-flying ANC leaders point blank of corruption. Parliamentary privilege protected her and allowed her to make the claims without having to substantiate them. On Thursday De Lille finally had the opportunity to explain her allegations in detail before the Seriti Commission. She struggled to do so, saying that she had no evidence of corruption and had made the accusations based on a secret dossier handed to her.
There it was, laid bare: the great difference between Parliament and any legal platform. On top of the perks and benefits, parliamentarians can generally say what they like in the House and get away with it.
That was before the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were part of the mix in Parliament. The debate on the Presidency budget vote this week showed how messy things can get and how debates can get bogged down in a tangle of parliamentary rules and objections.
By default, president Zuma is always the EFF’s number one target. Since becoming an MP, EFF leader Julius Malema had his second opportunity this week to pick apart Zuma’s “good story” of the ANC’s delivery record. In his speech Malema also threatened that the EFF would fight against the implementation of the National Development Plan, which Zuma is clearly pegging his legacy on.
While rattling everyone’s cages, the EFF also seems to be signalling that there could be opportunities for co-operation with the ANC. Earlier on Wednesday, during a debate on Rural Development and Land Reform, EFF MP Andile Mngxitama said his party would vote with the ANC to change the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. During his speech, Malema commended the ANC MPs who were wearing Palestinian scarves to demonstrate their opposition to the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
Malema understands Zuma’s proclivity for conspiracy theories and therefore gave him something to think about. “Mr President, be careful of your deputy president who sleeps with white monopoly capital.”
It was up to Malema’s former friend and ally Buti Manamela, now Deputy Minister in the Presidency, and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba to retaliate and hit Malema where it hurts. Manamela likened the formation of the EFF to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, prompting furious objections from the EFF benches.
Manamela’s former comrade in the Young Communist League, Floyd Shivambu was continuously up on his feet demanding that the Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli rule “this guy” out of order. Shivambu said he had trouble referring to ANC MPs as “honourable”, as is customary, as he did not believe them to be honourable. He also accused Manamela of lying, which is deemed to be unparliamentary language. Another EFF MP shouted angrily across the house for Manamela to return to the speaker’s podium after he had walked off before their objections had been dealt with.
As with Manamela’s speech, Gigaba was constantly interrupted by EFF objections after he referred to them as “political opportunists” led by people facing criminal charges. Gigaba said the ANC would not be lectured about their commitment to the poor “by those who recently traded in their Gucci watches for overalls”. Shivambu demanded that Tsenoli also sanction Gigaba, referring to him as “this guy” or by his first name.
From the day they debuted as MPs, the EFF made it known they would not play by the rules and niceties of Parliament. This was clearly on show on Wednesday. While there is still the standard howling and heckling, there is now a menacing atmosphere in the Parliament. It needs a strong hand to control, which Tsenoli unfortunately did not have.
On Thursday, Zuma had to respond to the debate. Usually, the president cherry-picks favourable comments from ANC and opposition MPs and occasionally responds to criticism. Mostly, he avoids controversial issues and steers clear of his detractors. However, there was a refreshing change this week. In a shorter than normal speech, Zuma began by responding to Congress of the People leader Mosioua Lekota’s question about how South Africa’s contribution to the new BRICS bank would be funded.
“The capital contributions to the New Development Bank will come from the fiscus. These capital contributions are similar to the ones we make to other multilateral institutions such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank, where we are members,” Zuma said. Then speaking off the cuff, Zuma said: “I would have thought we would have seen this as part of the developing countries standing on their own to finance their own operations. I would have thought our political maturity would have said ‘Yes, at last we are standing on our own’.”
Zuma continued, saying all African heads of state were excited about the new bank. He said it offered the ability to access funding to develop Africa “without too many strings attached”. This should be seen as “an advance” not a “backward movement”, Zuma said, purposefully making Lekota’s moaning about the funding of the bank seem petty.
For the first time, Zuma also addressed points raised by Malema directly. “Honourable Malema said we had misled the people of Vhembe that we would build a hospital and that the promise of water to the people of Giyani had also not materialised.
“Actually, work has begun on the two key projects. The redevelopment of Siloam Hospital in Vhembe is being implemented in two stages, namely new staff housing and a 350-bed new district hospital. The tender process has begun and it is anticipated that construction will begin in August 2015, and the project will take 30 months to complete. The estimated cost is R750 million. The commissioning of the new hospital is scheduled to be completed by April 2018,” Zuma said.
It was a smart way to hit back at Malema by providing a detailed response to his criticism. Malema was not in the House for Zuma’s reply so it was up to Shivambu to heckle back that the projects do not exist as yet. Zuma chuckled, and told Shivambu, who has been known to anger Zuma with his brashness, that he was trying to help the EFF with the information and that in future they should check before complaining that work was not being done.
Zuma also responded to Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s repeated petition during his speech on Wednesday that the president should “lead or step aside”.
“The very fact that Honourable Maimane is in Parliament today leading the Opposition, is due to the opportunities that freedom and democracy brought to young people in this country, thanks to the ANC. So Honourable Maimane, enjoy the freedom brought to you by the ANC, with our full compliments, or step aside,” Zuma said, causing a wave a laughter across the House, including from Maimane.
Zuma also addressed the sticky land issue in his reply, reiterating that government wanted no ownership of land by foreign nationals and proposed to convert current foreign ownership into long-term leases.
On the Middle East crisis, the president announced that he had appointed a second special envoy, former Minister of Social Development and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr Zola Skweyiya. He will accompany former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad to pursue mediation between Israel and Palestine.
Before ending his speech, Zuma spoke about the raucous in the House the day before. He said there was a need for respect and decorum in Parliament. He said he was speaking as a leader but also as an elder. He said the heated exchanges and rowdy behaviour was “beyond the line of what is expected of us by people who elected us here”.
“I’m not pointing fingers at any individual… I’m talking in a general way and if I don’t do it I will be failing in my duties as one of the leaders of this country.”
Zuma’s comments drew a sullen response from the EFF MPs. However, his good-natured manner in dealing with them and confidence on the day seemed to take them by surprise.
It was refreshing change to Zuma’s normally mundane speeches in Parliament. Perhaps having the belligerence and antagonism of the EFF to contend with is pushing the president to up his game and be more responsive. Or, perhaps, he was simply having a rare good day.
Whatever it is, it is no longer business as usual in Parliament. There is a lot more head-butting and fiery exchanges between the ruling party and the opposition benches. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa says the “beerhall type of theatre” will calm down as the newbies settle in to their positions.
“The best thing to do is to accept it as the way of parliamentary discourse,” Ramaphosa told the parliamentary Press Gallery Association. “It will go back to normal.”
But maybe the honourable Deputy President’s assessment is not correct. Maybe this is the new normal. Maybe the EFF’s raw energy and devil-may-care attitude have already changed the nature of our political discourse for a long time to come. Maybe we’re looking at a populist phenomenon with a long shelf life, the one that could wear the opponents down and out. At the moment, no-one can really say. But what is painfully obvious right now, is that our politics-as-usual is buckling under a red tsunami. DM
Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters wait with a Jacob Zuma mannequin outside the door leading to the House at the Gauteng Legislature in Johannesburg, Tuesday, 22 July 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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