We are into the final stretch of this year’s parliamentary term, and by the looks of things, the break can’t come too soon. Appearing before the National Assembly on Wednesday, the normally suave deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa appeared to lose his cool while appealing to the opposition for a mutually respectful relationship. Twenty EFF MPs, meanwhile, face suspension after being found guilty of contempt of parliament. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The last time Cyril Ramaphosa faced the music in parliament, mid-September, he joked: “I will be able to come back to you in a couple of years’ time when I come back to answer questions again.”
Just short of two months later, he was back in the hot-seat – while Number One continues to make himself conspicuous by his absence in the National Assembly. President Jacob Zuma is scheduled to address the National Council of Provinces on Thursday, but on Wednesday parliament was left to make do with Speaker Baleka Mbete mistakenly addressing Ramaphosa as “the President” at one point. (A prescient Freudian slip?)
There was a poor showing from the Economic Freedom Fighters at Wednesday’s session. It may be one of their last opportunities to appear for the year, since no less than 20 EFF MPs are now looking at the possibility of a 30-day suspension without pay. This follows the decision of parliament’s powers and privileges committee to find them guilty of contempt for the incident in the National Assembly on August 21st when they chanted that President Zuma should “pay back the money” spent on Nkandla.
The verdict marks a pretty torrid month for Julius Malema’s party, coming on the back of the split within its ranks, the announcement last week that Zuma does not have to pay back the money, and the apology leader Floyd Shivambu had to make to the National Assembly on Tuesday after having shown Ramaphosa his middle finger two months ago.
Explaining the decision of the powers and privileges committee to journalists on Wednesday, chair Lemias Mashile was insistent that there had been “sufficient consensus” from the MPs on the committee to return a guilty verdict, despite the fact that a number of opposition MPs indicated that the ANC members had essentially railroaded through the outcome.
Mashile said that letters have been sent to the relevant MPs informing them that they have been found guilty, and that on Friday a further hearing will be held in aggravation and mitigation of the potential sanctions they face. He suggested that the decision of the party’s MPs to pull out of the process had negatively affected their chances: in so doing, he said, they had “denied themselves the opportunity to influence it”.
In a statement after Mashile’s briefing, the EFF scorned the committee as a “kangaroo court” set up to do the bidding of ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, and to protect President Zuma.
“The EFF is not moved, neither is it bewildered by the verdict of this committee because its whole work was purely political and a mere fulfillment of the ANC mandate,” the statement contended.
The party also indicated that it does not intend to appear at Friday’s hearing in order to appeal for the mitigation of sanctions, because the whole process is “illegitimate”.
Mashile had earlier told journalists that the absence of the EFF from Friday’s hearing “without any good reason” would not prevent it from going ahead. When asked if other opposition MPs could argue in mitigation on behalf of the EFF, he replied that this action would be “strange”.
The EFF said that it will await the committee tabling its report in the National Assembly, whereupon it will challenge the outcome. If this fails, the EFF intends to pursue legal action. Mashile seemed unperturbed by this potential, merely remarking that it was “within their rights to do so”.
It is not guaranteed that the EFF MPs in question will be suspended. Other potential sanctions include a formal warning, a written reprimand, and being made to apologise before the National Assembly – or a combination thereof.
Despite the possibility of imminent punishment, Shivambu and spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi were still frequently on their feet during Wednesday’s National Assembly session, with Shivambu told off for referring to Ramaphosa as “Cyril”, shortly after he instructed Speaker Mbete that she was “making wrong rulings”.
As is the norm for parliament these days, it was a testy session. If Ramaphosa seriously expected not to have to answer any questions about Zuma’s absence from the House, he had a nasty surprise coming. DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane was insistent that Zuma’s absence be accounted for.
Ramaphosa sought to counter a recent Sunday Times report that Zuma would not be subjecting himself to the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary questions until the EFF have been effectively neutered. Ramaphosa read from a statement released by the presidency maintaining that Zuma will continue to meet his parliamentary obligations. The same statement said that in an election year, the time available for Zuma to appear before the House will be necessarily constrained.
But Ramaphosa simultaneously seemed to lend credence to the Sunday Times report by saying that Zuma’s ability to answer questions in the National Assembly had been scuppered by the behaviour of the EFF on the last occasion.
“Members of this House stood in the way of his answering questions,” Ramaphosa said, who became visibly ruffled when opposition MPs continued to press him on the issue.
When asked whether he felt the relationship between parliament and the executive was working as it should, he conceded that it is “not a relationship functioning as well as we want it to”.
But it isn’t the executive’s fault. “The President respects this House,” Ramaphosa maintained. “He has deep respect for this House.” This evoked derision from the opposition ranks.
“It becomes very difficult when there is screaming and howling and shouting to have a reasonable relationship,” Ramaphosa continued. Then everyone screamed and shouted and howled. Ramphosa went on to suggest that perhaps the opposition should stop complaining, which caused Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota to complain that engagement with the executive could not be contingent on the opposition behaving in a certain way.
Ramaphosa announced that he is meeting with opposition leaders on the 18th of this month – “after my birthday”. After the tumultuous ride they’ve had during this parliamentary term, it’s unlikely to be much of a celebration. DM
EFF MPs found guilty of contempt of Parliament, on M&G.
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at Nedlac’s labour relations indaba in Johannesburg, Tuesday, 4 November 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA