What blessed relief to hear MPs in the National Assembly on Thursday finally get down to discussing the Medium Term Budget. What a shame that the debate came over six hours after the start of the Parliamentary sitting, when many South Africans would likely have given up following events. The day started with the ANC announcing that the Ramaphosa-brokered truce between parties was definitely off; after hours of closed-doors negotiations, the truce is now back on. It’s tempting to say: a pox on all their houses. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Parliament, suggested DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen at one stage in Thursday’s sitting, is South Africa’s “apex institution”.
If that’s true, maybe we should be worried about the state of our other institutions.
Let’s be fair, though: what happens in the National Assembly reflects only one tiny aspect of the work undertaken by both Parliament and its members. The vast majority of parliamentary work happens in portfolio committees, poring over the work of government departments and prospective legislation. But it is the National Assembly sittings which receive attention, and for good reason – because it is in the House that laws finally get made, and the House that brings together some of South Africa’s most significant political figures to interact.
So perhaps it’s not wholly accurate to say that the past week has provided a thoroughly depressing glimpse into the state of South Africa’s Parliament. Perhaps it’s more valid to say that it has given disheartening insights into the state of inter-party relations, the use of a taxpayer-funded space as a kind of juvenile point-scoring game, the contradictions between how parties make account of themselves to the media, the lack of fore-planning or strategy, and the apparent confusion within the ANC Parliamentary caucus in particular.
And that’s without even touching on the deployment of riot police into the House last week.
At midnight during Thursday’s session, the EFF was raising a point of order to discuss whether it was “Parliamentary” for Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to address the National Assembly with his hands in his pocket. Nzimande hit back by suggesting the EFF gumboots were unsanitary. The EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi demanded that the Minister “apologise profusely and stop pontificating about our shoes”.
Approaching 1am, the DA’s David Maynier’s question to Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu regarding millions she allegedly spent on chartered flights was met with the suggestion by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula that Maynier should be “honest” about his “crush” on Sisulu. Sisulu herself stated that Maynier was in need of psychiatric treatment. Maynier himself spends a lot of time in Parliament making a “flying” motion at Sisulu. The ANC’s Buti Manamela went on to compare Maynier’s gestures to those of Michael Jackson.
While these snide exchanges occur in Parliaments around the world, this was happening after three days of ostensible hand-wringing between parties about how to restore the dignity of Parliament. There comes a point when it’s tempting to see these altercations as evidence not of the robust give-and-take of democracy in action, but testament to a kind of deep dysfunction.
Mapisa-Nqakula gave some insight into the way certain members of the ANC caucus think about the DA caucus on Wednesday, when she suggested that the opposition caucus was dominated by young, white, arrogant, private-school-educated male voices. Whether valid or not, it is clear that this demographic’s heckles earn specific anger and frustration from older female voices in particular within the ANC.
For their part, white MPs in the opposition ranks have complained about racism directed at them from the ruling party’s MPs. The IFP’s Liezl van der Merwe was allegedly heckled with umlungu; when the FF+’s Corne Mulder was talking on Thursday, he was heckled with cries of “Orania!” by an ANC MP – with the EFF leaping to his defence.
There have been complaints of other (black) MPs being referred to as “dogs” and “lizards”. Offensive gestures are now apparently the norm. We’ve come close to fistfights between MPs.
Nobody expects MPs from across the political spectrum to always see eye to eye, but the extent of incivility between parties has been laid bare over the past few days, and is genuinely disturbing. If this is how the well-paid political elite of the country behave when they have ideological differences, what hope is there for the rest of the country?
It is hard to report exactly what happened on Thursday, because so much of it took place behind closed doors. The starting point of the day was the ANC’s announcement that the “Parliamentary multi-party deal was off”, due to the DA’s insistence on pressing forth with the debate about Zuma’s Parliamentary non-attendance on Wednesday.
Worryingly, the statement from ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani explicitly said that the DA would be punished for its actions by being excluded from any further Parliamentary negotiations with the ANC. “We will not be engaging in any inter-party engagement with the official opposition in future,” Sizani wrote. “We are doubtful even [Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa] will find [Maimane] worthy of engagement in future”.
The DA maintains that they could not let the matter of Zuma’s Parliamentary attendance slide for now, as some suggested would be simply politic to do in light of the tensions between parties, because it goes to the heart of holding the Executive accountable. Whether you agree with them or not, for a party of elected representatives to be threatened with isolation in this manner without breaking any Parliamentary rules is clearly untenable.
Sizani said that the deal being removed from the table meant that the discussion of disciplinary measures against EFF leadership would go ahead: a form of punishment against the Fighters for their cooperation with the DA in recent days?
When the sitting of the National Assembly convened at 2pm, Sizani’s first move was to propose that the orders of business – including the EFF disciplinary discussion – should take place first, rather than members’ motions, as is usual. His intention was clearly to prevent the EFF launching what would have been the third filibuster of the week. After opposition from both the DA and the EFF, Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli ordered a “ten minute break” for the party Whips to hash out the matter.
The break stretched on for six hours, with party MPs disappearing at various times to caucus. The rumour among the DA was that the instruction from Luthuli House was that the EFF needed to be disciplined on Thursday. Left to their own devices, at one point DA MPs took to singing songs, including “Jingle Bells”.
The sitting resumed at 9pm, and it appeared that the opposition had won the day. Suddenly a statement from Stone Sizani struck a totally different note.
“The Office of the ANC Chief Whip is pleased that, following exhaustive engagement amongst representatives of political parties in Parliament on areas of disagreement relating to today’s agenda of the National Assembly, parties have been able to reach a consensus. We welcome the maturity and cooperation that enabled the parties to reach a compromise on the stalemate.”
The National Assembly will now sit again next week, rather than concluding the session this week as arranged. The issue of the EFF’s disciplinary sanctions will be held over till then. The DA says all parties will meet with the Deputy President next week as planned: so much for their isolation.
What is Sizani playing at? He must have known that the proposal to unilaterally change the order of proceedings in the House would be met with strenuous opposition – yet it appeared that he had no follow-up plan. The DA insists that Sizani was fully aware that they intended to hold Wednesday’s Zuma debate – yet, possibly following disagreement within his caucus, he presented himself as blindsided by events. The picture is generally chaotic: of decisions made on the fly followed by frantic cover-ups and compensations. Whatever is happening between the ANC Chief Whip and his caucus, Parliament is the poorer for it.
On Thursday evening the DA’s Maimane also put out a statement effectively accusing Deputy President Ramaphosa of having lied about the terms of the inter-party truce: “Ramaphosa has misrepresented the agreements between the parties,” Maimane wrote.
“I urge Deputy President Ramaphosa to return to the good faith spirit of our negotiations, instead of continuing to manufacture blame against the DA,” he added.
The South African electorate must essentially choose whose version to believe, since the two parties are presenting contrasting narratives of the closed-doors negotiations. One conclusion, as Mail & Guardian journalist Andisiwe Makinana pointed out, is surely that these Parliamentary deals will have to be struck in the presence of journalists in future – a dispiriting sign of where we are at.
At time of writing at 2am, the House was still sitting – still with puerile insults flying, evasions from Ministers and pointless points of order, but also with some genuinely substantive contributions. The sad thing is that by this time, even the prospect of riot police could surely not keep many South Africans awake to watch it. DM
Photo: Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, accompanied by the party’s parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane (L) and DA MPs stage a protest in front of Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday, 20 November 2014. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA