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South Africa

Parliament diary: While wounds are licked, questions remain

Parliament diary: While wounds are licked, questions remain

After last week’s discomfiting events in Parliament, culminating in police entering the National Assembly to forcibly remove a female EFF MP who had insulted President Jacob Zuma, many are wondering what the way forward is to restore Parliamentary relations. Parliamentary officials have insisted that everything that happened was necessary to preserve the decorum of the institution, but there’s little doubt that a line has been crossed – and there are probably more storms ahead. By REBECCA DAVIS.

More details have emerged following Thursday’s Parliamentary uproar – though some answers are less than satisfying, and others seemingly non-existent. One of the points that Parliamentary officials have been most keen to stress is that technically no “riot police” were involved in the incident, which saw a number of MPs assaulted.

The police were, instead, members of the public order policing unit. It’s a semantic correction which doesn’t seem likely to bring much comfort, given that the police in question were wearing body armour, holstered weapons and pepper spray.

The Sunday Times reported that, in apparent expectation of drama in the House, the police had been given a committee room on the third floor of the National Assembly to use as their headquarters for the week.

The issue of who, exactly, gave the order for the police to enter the House, remains ambiguous. “South Africans have the right to know who gave these instructions and who should be held to account for such deeply undemocratic tendencies,” Right2Know’s Murray Hunter said on Saturday.

The only journalist to get a close look at events, Business Day’s Paul Vecchiatto, has written an account in which he reports that the police may have entered the National Assembly on their own initiative.

Vecchiatto wrote that Parliament’s own security staff had refused to enter the chamber to remove EFF MP Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela.

It was then that [commanding officers] Lt-Col Lotz and Brig Petersen exchanged looks and nodded before they moved in,” he reported. Vecchiatto also suggests that house chairman Credric Frolick “watched with a grin on his face” while the cops manhandled Mashabela and the DA MPs who attempted to block their way.

At an emergency press briefing on Friday morning, however, Parliament’s head of security Zelda Holtzman said that the police were called in by the Parliamentary security staff, after they were summoned by the sergeant-at-arms to remove Mashabela.

If this was the case, the permissibility of the police action in this context seems doubtful. The 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act stipulates that policing functions may be carried out “only with the permission and under the authority of the Speaker or Chairperson” – unless there is immediate danger to someone’s life, as was clearly not the case on Thursday.

The Economic Freedom Fighters have announced that to prevent a repeat of Thursday’s events, they want a court order declaring it illegal for police to enter the Chamber.

The Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, has called for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to look into the use of the police, as well as writing to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to ask for his undertaking that police be barred from the Chamber in future.

Among the DA MPs who attempted to prevent the police from manhandling the EFF’s Mashabele was 60-something Shadow Women’s Minister Denise Robinson, the Sunday Times reported. Robinson was “roughly shoved aside by police”, while another female DA MP, Terri Stander, was “punched and shoved by police, falling hard on her neck and back after somersaulting over Parliamentary benches”.

The question of who gave the order to cut off the Parliamentary TV feed, too, remains unresolved. The SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) said on Friday that they were “disturbed by the continuing interference with the audio and visual feeds from Parliament each time there is chaos in the National Assembly”. On two previous occasions, the TV feed has been similarly cut off when it became apparent that trouble was looming within the House – an approach which SANEF has called “soft censorship”.

Speaker of the House Baleka Mbete does not agree. “We don’t have a policy of censorship,” she told journalists on Friday, dodging the question of who cut the feed. “We all know the attitude of our democracy on those matters, but all those issues have limitations.”

It would be inaccurate to say that Mbete seemed unrepentant about Thursday’s events, since she described herself as being “depressed”. It is clear, though, that she puts the blame for the incident squarely at the feet of opposition MPs.

We could not sit here in this institution and forever allow disruptions and outrageous conduct of honourable members,” she said, pointing to a trend of “incident after incident”.

Mbete also presented the Parliamentary officials as having adopted a policy of restraint and tolerance in the face of aggravation up to now.

All along we have resisted, in spite of us having a law which gives us the authority to call the police,” she said.

The DA has opted for a hardline response to what the party terms “the verge of a Constitutional crisis”. The opposition will no longer recognise Mbete’s authority as Speaker, Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said on Friday. What this amounts to in practical terms is that the DA will only send its Chief Whip, Deputy Chief Whip and MPs participating in debates to the House when Mbete is presiding.

Two full weeks remain of this year’s Parliamentary term. On Tuesday, MPs will be in the National Assembly from 10am. The DA has indicated that it will propose a motion to replace Baleka Mbete as Speaker. In the afternoon, too, there is one particularly provocative item on the agenda: the consideration of the report of the Powers and Privileges Committee into the behaviour of EFF MPs in the National Assembly on 21 August – the occasion better remembered as the “pay back the money” day.

Last week, the committee adopted a report recommending that MPs including party leaders Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu be suspended without pay for 30 days.

On Tuesday, the report is scheduled to be tabled in the National Assembly for approval. It seems highly unlikely that it will be met with placidity from the opposition ranks. Two DA MPs on the committee voted against the adoption of the report, while other opposition MPs were absent from the voting meeting.

It seems virtually guaranteed that sparks will fly in the National Assembly on Tuesday once again. The one thing you can bank on is that no journalists will be leaving early this time. DM

Photo: Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane speaks at a news conference at Parliament on Friday, 14 November 2014, following raucous behaviour in the House which culminated in fisticuffs and scuffles. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA

Read more:

  • Parliament diary: Scenes of shame, on Daily Maverick

  • Riot police stormed house after security broke rank, on BDLive

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