Though DA MPs wore all black to the National Assembly on Tuesday to dramatically signal the death of the democratic space, two things secured a kind of fraught truce to Parliamentary hostilities – relatively speaking. One was the meeting convened between opposition leaders and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday morning. The other, which emerged from the first, was the postponement of the contentious agenda item to discuss disciplinary measures against EFF MPs. By REBECCA DAVIS.
By the sounds of their utterances on social media, some DA MPs greeted the arrival of Tuesday’s National Assembly session as if they were girding their loins for warfare, following the events of last Thursday.
“DA back benchers taking a pact to ‘protect each other’ in the house today,” tweeted one, while Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane announced: “Just been to gym to prepare for any and all eventualities today in Parliament”.
These precautions would prove unnecessary, after a meeting between Cyril Ramaphosa and opposition leaders in the morning which saw all parties agreeing to take the necessary steps to restore calm to the National Assembly. Foremost among these was the concession from Ramaphosa that disciplinary measures against EFF Mps, including leader Julius Malema, would be shelved for now.
A committee of Parliamentary party leaders has also been established, chaired by Ramaphosa and deputied by the DA’s Mmusi Maimane and ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani, which will meet next week to consider last Thursday’s ruckus in the House.
The meeting in question between Ramaphosa and the opposition was not scheduled directly in response to Thursday’s events. On Ramaphosa’s last appearance in the House, just over a fortnight ago, he indicated that he would be meeting with opposition leaders on the 18th. But after riot police entered the National Assembly last week, the meeting would have taken on a renewed urgency.
Who emerged with the upper hand from the meeting? The EFF were clearly big winners, given that their MPs were facing suspension without salaries after the “pay back the money” National Assembly protest in August. The Fighters were in no mood for gratitude, however. In a statement following the meeting, the EFF said that “the notion that Cyril Ramaphosa liberated or pardoned members of the EFF should be dismissed with contempt. Members of the EFF liberated and freed themselves.”
The DA, meanwhile, took the establishment of the multi-party committee as a concession that “Parliament is not working under the Speakership of Baleka Mbete”.
There was, however, no indication from Ramaphosa that Mbete would be leaving her position any time soon. Ramaphosa said only that party leaders had agreed that Parliament’s presiding officers “should be impartial, they should be seen as representing all of us who are in Parliament and they should not seek to side with any political party”.
Nonetheless, despite the DA’s announcement last week that they would “no longer recognize the authority” of Speaker Baleka Mbete in the House, the only indication of this stance on Tuesday afternoon was their failure to rise and greet her – and several references to Mbete as “ANC Chairperson” rather than “Speaker”, a dig at what they consider to be her conflicted role.
For her part, Mbete gave a measured but evasive statement on arrival, calling it inevitable that the National Assembly engagement and debate “will be vigorous, robust and even tough at times”, given that there are 13 parties currently represented.
Without directly mentioning the riot police, Mbete said: “What transpired in the House on Thursday, 13 November 2014, is not something that we are proud of, and we should all do our utmost to prevent any possibility of its recurrence.”
The ANC Parliamentary caucus had clearly been briefed to keep things cool after the Ramaphosa-negotiated truce.
“We are deliberately refraining from responding to provocative comments [from the opposition] because we are trying to abide by the spirit of this morning’s meeting,” Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said at one point.
Normally vocal Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, too, explicitly said she was biting her tongue, reading from a statement produced during the meeting rather than providing any of her own views on events.
Even a statement from EFF MP Reneilwe Mashabela – the member who refused to leave the House last Thursday – saying that SANDF soldiers were sent to be killed in the Central African Republic “in defence of President Zuma’s insatiable appetite for kickbacks” failed to provoke a storm.
While Maimane said that the DA “very cautiously” welcomed the outcomes of Ramaphosa’s meeting, that didn’t stop the opposition putting forward one motion and three statements condemning Thursday’s police action.
DA MP Terri Stander, who is among those who have laid assault charges against police, read a motion noting that the last time riot police were allowed in the National Assembly was after the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966. The events were “a dark stain against our democracy”, she said, and police should never be allowed in again – to applause from the opposition ranks but not from the ANC MPs.
Deputy Justice Minister John Jeffery retorted that what Stander was calling for was an amendment of the 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, which does allow for policing in the National Assembly – though only under the explicit directive of the Speaker or when a member’s life is in danger.
Maimane reiterated Stander’s sentiments in a member’s statement, calling Thursday’s events a “most brutal assault” on the Constitution and democracy. His words were immediately followed by an ANC condemnation of the health issue constituted by “couch potato syndrome”, leading to high blood pressure and diabetes.
DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen and Shadow Police Minister Diane Kohler-Barnard also denounced the police action. Steenhuisen noted that ANC spokesperson Moloto Mothapo has called for DA MPs to be charged with assaulting police – in response to which a number of ANC MPs cried their approval. Kohler-Barnard said that former Police Minister Bheki Cele now had what he’d always wanted: a police force which had become an army.
The ANC’s Jeffery again took to his feet to accuse the DA of legislative ignorance. “I just wish everybody would read their laws,” he said. “The MPs weren’t abiding by the rules; a member was asked to go, then refused to leave. What else would you do?”
Despite the supposedly conciliatory atmosphere, too, the DA was preparing to go ahead with a draft resolution to censure President Zuma for his non-attendance in Parliament. The list of speakers included representatives from across the opposition ranks – but no ANC MPs.
After a National Assembly sitting running into a gruelling eighth hour, however, it was agreed to postpone this debate until Wednesday’s session.
In the National Assembly on Wednesday, Deputy President Ramaphosa will do duty answering questions for the third time in two months – while Number One stays away. Let’s see if this freshly-minted peace can survive a debate on whether the President is upholding his Parliamentary obligations. DM
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (C) speaks to journalists at a news conference after meeting with leaders of opposition parties at Tuynhuys in Cape Town on Tuesday, 18 November 2014. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA
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