South Africa

The great Baleka Mbete debate: How the ANC won the battle and lost the PR war

By Ranjeni Munusamy 17 September 2014

The five opposition parties who on Tuesday tried to pass a vote of no confidence in the Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete were never going to win the day. They simply do not have the numbers to defeat the ANC in a vote. The point of the motion was to push Mbete’s back to the wall and show her that she will not go unchallenged in future. It was also to demonstrate how a united force of the opposition can disrupt the way things have always been done. In the end, the ANC won the vote and Mbete remains in the Speaker’s chair. But Parliament is now the field of political battle and one who triumphs in the House may not necessarily be winning the perception war. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Why push for a vote of no confidence in the Speaker of Parliament when the ANC has a 62% majority and can crush all the opposition parties put together? It could all be a grand waste of time. But the parliamentary session on Tuesday, when a motion of no confidence in Speaker Baleka Mbete was debated, will be remembered for being the first co-ordinated attack by opposition parties, from which the ANC and presiding officers took strain.

Following the establishment of the fifth democratic Parliament in May this year, it seemed clear that the first target of the newly configured opposition would be President Jacob Zuma. The Democratic Alliance (DA), backed by seven other opposition parties, tried to table a vote of no confidence against Zuma in November 2012, believing that the factional battles in the ANC ahead of the party’s Mangaung national conference would lead some of the ruling party MPs to vote against the president. The motion never made it to a debate in the House as it was blocked by the ANC caucus.

The DA had every intention re-tabling the motion, but was hamstrung by the legislature’s rules. When the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) made their debut in Parliament, they changed the ballgame somewhat. The EFF’s strategy appears to fight on every front, from committee meetings to confronting Zuma in Parliament during question time. They have realised that pushing Zuma’s back to the wall, in the way they did on the question of when he would pay back the money for the Nkandla upgrades, is much more effective at this stage than trying to vote him out of office without the numbers to defeat the ANC’s majority.

This time, opposition parties have however teamed up to take on Mbete. She has much more to do with directly frustrating their agenda, and is an obvious target, considering the continuous head-butting sessions she has been having with the opposition, particularly the EFF.

Zuma is the ultimate target, but Mbete is the barrier in between that shields the president from the line of fire. It is therefore difficult to rattle Zuma in Parliament for as long as the Speaker is constantly running interference.

With the ANC having a 62% majority in the House, there is no possible way that a motion of no confidence would ever succeed against Mbete. But the five parties, the DA, EFF, Congress of the People, United Democratic Movement and Freedom Front Plus decided to put Mbete on notice and show up her weaknesses. While not all opposition parties supported the motion, the point was made that Mbete’s failure to manage the House effectively – and conflicted roles – was turning Parliament into a farce.

Mbete has not had the best run this term. She has been away from Parliament for some time and then clearly mishandled the situation when the EFF staged a protest over the Nkandla money. On Tuesday, Mbete was in the House for the debate, sitting passively alongside Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. She smiled occasionally, as opposition leaders tore into her and ANC MPs rallied to defend her. Before the House convened, she addressed the ANC supporters using police loud hailer equipment. The DA argued that this exposed the Speaker’s partisanship.

DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane submitted the motion of no confidence in the Speaker for several reasons, including the levels of disruption in the fifth Parliament, and her failure to restore order in the House during the president’s question session when riot police were called in. Maimane said they also wanted the motion passed against Mbete because she served simultaneously as Speaker and chairperson of the ANC.

The ANC called this a “frivolous motion” and an “empty political ploy”. ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said Mbete had performed in an “exemplary fashion, exercising the required impartiality at all times”. To show its support for Mbete, the ANC bussed in supporters for the parliamentary session, who rowdily demonstrated their support during the session. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe kept a beady eye on proceedings from the presidential box in the public gallery.

Speaking during the debate, Maimane said the motion of no confidence was “not personal” and the DA respected her as a former deputy president and an experienced politician. “She cannot serve as a leader of the ANC, and a neutral Speaker in the House. The conflict of interest is untenable,” Maimane said.

He said Mbete had already made up her mind that Zuma should not pay back the money for the Nkandla upgrades, as had been recommended by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. “Parliament can only work when the Speaker puts country before party,” Maimane said.

The EFF’s Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala said the ANC was using Apartheid protocols and rules to suppress the opposition. She said the conflict in Mbete during parliamentary debates could be read in her body language and her facial expressions. Litchfield-Tshabalala argued that Parliament should have retired judges running proceedings in order to ensure impartiality.

The session was intermittently interrupted by howling and insults from the public gallery, which the Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli battled to control.

EFF leader Julius Malema demanded that the ANC supporters be evicted.

Although it was a day when Mbete leadership was in question, the two people who occupied the Speaker’s chair during the debate, first Tsenoli and then presiding officer Cedrick Frolick were under serious pressure, with constant and overlapping points of order and objections to what those at the podium were saying.

The ANC’s put out some of its prized fighters to counter the opposition. Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said the attack on Mbete was a reflection of patriarchy and sexism. She said the minority would never undermine the will of the voters and undermine the majority.

Minister of Sports and Recreation Fikile Mbalula belted out a bizarre and colourful attack on the opposition, saying bringing the DA and EFF together was a “dangerous experiment not to be tried at home”. He said Maimane was a token black from a party with fascist tendencies, and called the EFF “charlatans”, “losers” and “hypocrites” who had the audacity to question the ANC’s deployment policy.

Frolick lost his temper several times as EFF and DA MPs raised points of order and demanded that Mbalula withdraw his comments. Mbalula later came under a counter-attack from Malema, who said he lacked a backbone and had not been true to any cause.

It was the ANC’s Bertha Mabe, however, who really got the opposition howling and even tested Frolick’s patience. She repeatedly made ad hominem attacks on Maimane and Malema, and tried to defy orders to withdraw her statements. She eventually stormed off the podium muttering “bastards!”

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said the motion of no confidence was aimed at subverting the policy programme of the ANC. She said Mbete had done everything she had been asked to do and had been met with “insults, disruptions and rudeness”. Pandor said opposition MPs were there to render the House chaotic, and were not there to ensure the transformation of society.

The session rounded up with ANC chief whip Stone Sizani seeking to table an amendment to the DA’s motion, calling instead for a vote of confidence in the Speaker. This led to a round of protestations from the DA and EFF in particular, who wanted to vote on the original motion. The opposition parties who backed the motion of no confidence then staged a walkout of the House.

This turned out to backfire somewhat as Sizani immediately withdrew his amendment and proposed that the original motion be voted on. With none of the backers remaining in the House, the motion was defeated by 234 votes to zero.

So after a complete mauling in the debate, Mbete retained her Speaker’s seat with no votes against her.

However, the line in the sand has been drawn. Opposition parties have signalled that they can and will go for the jugular when necessary. Members of the public are now exposed to all Mbete’s weaknesses and she will be on the backfoot from now on.

The ANC, despite its long and illustrious history in politics, is taking strain from the new young Turks in Parliament. They clearly do not have a strategy to compete in the new ballgame and seem to be flailing. Parliament is now being closely watched and the public is becoming progressively more disenchanted with the ANC’s conduct.

Mbete survived the day, but this is not the end of the onslaught on her. This will be even more worrying for Zuma, as his wall of protection is not as intact as it was before.

But for South Africa, parliamentary democracy is alive and thriving, even though it is not very pretty to behold. DM

Photo: Parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete reads the resignation letter of South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki to the country’s Parliament in Cape Town September 22, 2008. (SOUTH AFRICA)


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