The Democratic Alliance is gearing up for another parliamentary year after a slightly schizophrenic last term for the party’s parliamentary caucus, split between support for the Economic Freedom Front’s combative stance on the one hand, and a stated adherence to the rules of parliament on the other. On Thursday, parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane placed emphasis firmly on the latter position – but exactly what will happen at next month’s State of the Nation Address is anyone’s guess. By REBECCA DAVIS.
In recent years the Democratic Alliance (DA) has become increasingly adept at political aesthetics, and the staging of a press conference on Thursday at Parliament was no exception. It’s usual for the opposition to host media briefings in one of its parliamentary meeting rooms, but on this occasion the party opted for Mmusi Maimane to address journalists from the steps of the National Assembly.
“New year; new things,” tweeted Maimane’s spokesperson Mabine Seabe in response to a query as to why. But the choice was clearly deliberate: the DA was staking out its claim to the institution by positioning Maimane with a DA-branded podium directly in front of its most iconic building. The podium seemed to be a relic from Maimane’s campaign for the Gauteng premiership. “Power to the People”, its lettering read, coupled with an Obama-like print of Maimane’s face.
In just under a month, President Jacob Zuma and his deputies will be standing on precisely that spot to sing the national anthem before Zuma enters the building to deliver the State of the Nation Address (Sona).
Sona, which marks the official opening of Parliament, normally takes place in a fairly good-natured atmosphere. The red carpet, the glitzy outfits and the fancy dinner lend a festive air to proceedings, however much opposition parties criticize the substance of the president’s address immediately afterwards.
This year, however, it’s likely that neither the African National Congress (ANC) nor Parliament’s officials nor functionaries are experiencing much pleasurable anticipation when they think about the evening. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have said that unless Speaker Baleka Mbete agrees to convene a special sitting of Parliament – at which Zuma will answer questions – before Sona, they will be left with “no other option” but to put those questions to Zuma at Sona.
Mbete said no. The Speaker explained that Parliament’s programming committee was in talks with the Presidency to find appropriate dates for Zuma to take questions in the National Assembly, as he is supposed to do once every parliamentary term. Mbete also suggested that Malema’s intimations about Sona “potentially constitute intimidation”.
Where does that leave us? In highly ambiguous waters. Andisiwe Makinana’s excellent City Press piece explains that Parliament essentially has no regulations in place to prevent the EFF’s Julius Malema asking Zuma questions at the Sona – except that “no one has ever asked a question during the state of the nation address in the past 20 years”.
Technically nobody is permitted to speak without the permission of the presiding officer, but during normal joint sittings of the National Assembly members of parliament frequently do. Technically, too, points of order – when MPs rise to quibble about a procedural matter – are permitted, though seemingly nobody has ever tried it during the Sona.
The Sona is televised live; the EFF will be aware that it constitutes an ideal moment to grab the limelight. If Malema and his Fighters pull another #PayBackTheMoney stunt during the President’s address, it seems likely that they will be removed by police once again. The last time that happened, the DA stood shoulder to shoulder with their fellow opposition MPs, blocking the way of the police entering the House to remove an EFF MP.
This time round, Maimane hinted, the EFF should expect no such solidarity.
“Every South African agrees we cannot have police in the House,” Maimane said on Thursday. But, he added, “What the EFF is planning on doing is the EFF’s problem”.
“We want to exercise discipline,” Maimane said. “Any disruption will mean we distract away from the issues of the State of the Nation.”
It seems that the comradeship between the red house and the blue house may have been short-lived.
Indeed, Maimane took a swipe at the EFF’s vision of Parliament, saying that the Fighters dismissed parliamentary rules as “being created by colonialists and imperialists”. In fact, said Maimane, “these rules were rewritten by the new democratic dispensation and published in 1997”.
Notwithstanding the general ruckus of the last parliamentary term, Maimane was also at pains to flatteringly contrast the behaviour of DA MPs with that of EFF MPs. “When our members have been asked to leave, they have left,” Maimane said.
It was pointed out that this was not strictly accurate. For instance, during the parliamentary sitting on 13 November 2014, DA whip Mike Waters was told by Mbete to sit down or leave the National Assembly. “I will not,” replied Waters, and did not.
In response Maimane put the blame on Mbete, saying that the Speaker consistently failed to apply the rules fairly, and thus had to be challenged.
Despite the ostentatious distancing from the EFF, it’s not the case that the DA is willing to let the matter of Zuma’s attendance in Parliament slide either. Maimane is asking Mbete for Parliament’s programming committee to meet before Sona to provide “at least five concrete dates” for when the President will take questions in Parliament.
Though the rules only specify that a sitting president should answer questions four times per year, Maimane says that because Zuma didn’t complete his last Q&A session in August last year, an additional session must be added to this year’s roster.
And what if Mbete does not agree to the DA’s demand in this regard? Maimane was a little vague as to what would happen then.
“I have to negotiate in a way that says I want parliament to work, I am not here to threaten it,” Maimane said.
New Year’s resolutions for the DA parliamentary caucus, then, seem to be all about discipline and focus in the National Assembly – and staying above the rough-and-tumble of the EFF’s shenanigans.
The Presidency, meanwhile, took the unusual step of reassuring the public on Thursday that the President will, in fact, take questions in Parliament this year – after Malema suggested he might shirk his responsibilities altogether.
“[President Zuma’s] calendar always includes parliamentary work,” spokesperson Mac Maharaj’s statement read. “The date for the first quarter oral question time will be finalised with the National Assembly in due course.”
That’s unlikely to appease an EFF parliamentary caucus bent on ensuring that last year’s beef isn’t forgotten any time soon, but whatever action they may take, this time it looks like they will be on their own. Then again, four weeks could be an eternity in politics. DM
Photo: Mmusi Maimane addressed media in Cape Town, Thursday 15 January 2015 (Rebecca Davis)
Can parly stop EFF from questioning Zuma? On City Press.