After a final sitting of the National Assembly, convened at great public expense, Parliament is finally over for the year. President Jacob Zuma did not return to answer questions. The leadership of the Economic Freedom Fighters has been suspended without pay. Perhaps the next few months’ break will see the National Assembly reconvene next year in productive, industrious mode. Perhaps. By REBECCA DAVIS.
On Tuesday, EFF leadership had warned that there would be “blood on the floor” during Thursday’s National Assembly session. Normally that’s a hyperbolic metaphor, but the way Parliament’s been going, you can never be too sure.
The reason why the session was set to be particularly contentious: the vote on the Power and Privileges Committee report finding 20 EFF MPs guilty of misconduct for having disrupted the House during the August 21st session when they chanted “pay back the money” at President Jacob Zuma.
The ANC had originally envisaged a special sitting of the National Assembly which would last around 25 minutes: no members’ statements, and no debates. After protests from the opposition, however, it was agreed that a limited number of MPs’ motions could be put forward, and that two debates would take place: one on the current Eskom problems, and the other on the Power and Privileges report.
The Eskom debate saw the ruling party come in for harsh criticism from the DA in particular, with Shadow Minister of Public Enterprises Natasha Michael describing the current load-shedding issues as “a crisis that has been shrouded in mystery”.
Michael demanded that the relevant departments come clean about how long load-shedding could be expected to continue for, and that the DA be given access to maintenance logs for all power stations and all the contracts for the Medupi power station. She also wanted answers as to the real extent of problems at the Majuba power station in Mpumalanga, where a coal silo collapsed at the beginning of the month. Since that incident, there has also been talk of problems at the Lethabo power station in the Vaal Triangle.
Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown came out fighting. This was not the time for blame, she said; it was the time for “pulling together as a nation”. She painted the current problems as an inevitable consequence of increased strain on the grid. Before 1995, only five million homes were serviced. Since then, the government has added an additional seven million houses to the grid.
“If the power stations were perfect, we would have more than enough power to keep the lights on all the time,” Brown said. “Power stations are not perfect; like cars, they need servicing from time to time.”
She said that an investigation into the Majuba silo collapse was ongoing, and results could be expected in two months’ time.
Brown was frank about the fact that things are not going to get much better for a while. It will be “tough” for the next two years, she said. But by 2018, electricity shortages should be a thing of the past.
Her candour about South Africa’s energy problems was in marked contrast to the ANC’s Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba, who had previously told Parliament: “I want to say there is no crisis.” It was a claim that earned hoots of mockery from the opposition.
But the central Parliamentary issue of the day was about power of a different kind: the ongoing power struggle between the EFF and Parliamentary officials.
After being absent for the last few sessions, Thursday saw the full complement of EFF leadership take to the benches for the sitting where their disciplinary fate would be officialised. With the ANC’s majority always guaranteeing that the proposed sanctions against the party’s MPs would be voted through, the EFF’s only hope of postponing their punishment was yet another filibuster.
But they couldn’t do it through MP’s motions and members’ statements, as has been the case in the past, due to the limit placed on these for the sessions. EFF MPs reportedly spent the morning huddled in the Parliament library devising an alternate strategy. At first, it seemed that this would take the form simply of endless points of order; but the copy of the Public Protector’s Nkandla report prominently displayed on Floyd Shivambu’s desk suggested a different technique.
When the Powers and Privileges committee chair Lemias Mashile rose to deliver a summary of the committee’s findings, there was an almost immediate uproar. Not just the EFF, but also the UDM and IFP, protested that Mashile was delivering an inaccurate version of what had happened in the committee. Mashile claimed, for instance, that there had been consensus within the committee that Speaker Baleka Mbete – who had presided over the “pay back the money” session –should not be called as a witness. The opposition was adamant that this was not the case.
With the EFF microphones switched off by Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli in a vain attempt to regain hold of proceedings, Malema and Shivambu marched to the podium to attempt to wrest control of that microphone, arguing that Mashile should clarify whether he was addressing Parliament in his capacity as an ANC MP or the head of the committee.
With Tsenoli ruling that there was nothing procedurally amiss with Mashile delivering the summary, Mashile was eventually able to continue. The sanctions against the EFF MPs were “not meant to harm”, he said, but to “get them to amend their behaviour going forward”.
Solidarity among opposition parties was on full display, in almost unanimous rejection of the report. The DA’s Annelie Lotriet suggested that the ANC “came to the committee with the predetermined view of focusing all responsibility on the EFF”. Aside from this functional unfairness, Lotriet pointed out that the precedent set by the report was of importance because it was the first time since 1994 that the Powers and Privileges Committee had had to deal with such a matter.
Even the National Freedom Party, which is usually on cosy terms with the ANC – its leader Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi was rewarded with a Deputy Minister position – rejected the report, suggesting that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was exerting pressure on National Assembly proceedings as an “extra-parliamentary Chief Whip”.
Julius Malema himself delivered a defiant address, making it clear that the EFF was not about to plead for non-suspension. “You cannot threaten us without salaries,” he said. “We have survived many months and years without salaries.”
Yet despite this bold assertion, the EFF still attempted to obstruct the voting through of the report. Leader Floyd Shivambu announced that he had an “amendment” to make to the report, but in order to do so, he first needed to sketch the context which had led to the party shouting at Zuma to pay back the money spent on Nkandla.
His plan? To read the entire Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, stretching to well over 400 pages, aloud. A filibuster and a half.
Deputy Speaker Tsenoli was caught on the back foot, demurring and then initially permitting Shivambu to go ahead. Shivambu duly began to read the first page of the Nkandla report. ANC heavyweights – Naledi Pandor; Jeremy Cronin – vocally objected, saying that the report could not be amended, only the motion to vote through the report.
Tsenoli’s handling of the matter was weak and indecisive. ANC MPs took the unusual step of openly expressing hostility towards his approach. “I don’t know why you are allowing this,” snapped the ANC’s Mmamoloko Kubayi, who sat on the Nkandla ad hoc committee. Science and Technology Minister Pandor told him that the uproar unfurling in the House constituted Tsenoli being “confronted by the consequences” of not following proper procedure.
Tsenoli eventually found his mettle, shutting down Shivambu’s attempts to continue reading the Nkandla report. “It’s done,” he said. “You have been given ample opportunity [to propose an alternative motion]”. There appeared to be no EFF Plan B.
After some confusion as to whether MPs were voting for an alternative motion proposed by the DA, or for the motion to suspend the EFF MPs, the latter was easily passed: 201 yes votes, 111 no, three abstentions.
“What happens now?” demanded Malema. “Do we go because we are suspended?”
The EFF MPs walked out, to be met by a crowd of raucous supporters who had patiently spent the session in the gallery of the National Assembly.
The likes of Malema, Shivambu and Chief Whip Godrich Gardee will go a month without salary as a result of their 30-day suspension. Others, including resident intellectual Andile Mngxitama, will be suspended for 14 days without pay. A third group of EFF MPs only have to apologise before the House, though it’s unclear when this will happen.
With the EFF out of the House, the remainder of Parliamentary business wrapped up peacefully: end-of-year speeches contained the usual friendly admonishments to fellow MPs not to drink and drive, and not to eat too much.
But the dawning of a new Parliamentary term in 2015 is unlikely to bring miraculous tranquility to the National Assembly. Since President Jacob Zuma failed to return to Parliament to answer questions, the EFF MPs have announced their intention to disrupt his State of the Nation Address on 12 February. That’s if they’re permitted to attend, of course. DM
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa looks on during a special sitting of the House on Thursday, 27 November 2014. Thursday’s special sitting at Parliament in Cape Town included a debate on the Powers and Privileges Committee report that found 20 EFF MPs guilty of disrupting the House on August 21. The charges against the EFF stemmed from their heckling of President Jacob Zuma over the cost of the security upgrades at his Nkandla home. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA