South Africa

Jamming his own signal or running for cover? Ramaphosa’s slippery Q&A in Parliament

By Ranjeni Munusamy 5 March 2015

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was supposed to be the good guy in the signal jamming fiasco at the State of the Nation Address in Parliament last month. He was the one who intervened and got the Minister of State Security to get someone to switch the scrambling device off. But answering questions in Parliament on Wednesday, Ramaphosa adopted the default government position of evading questions instead of dealing with the issues head-on and moving past them. Now the signal-jamming incident will be yet another issue left to fester, and opposition parties will have yet another stick with which to beat the ANC and government. But perhaps there is more to the story. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

There was a time two weeks ago when government actually managed to mount the high ground on the network scrambling matter. How it managed to lose that ground and revert to looking like a paranoid, heavy-handed state stomping on civil liberties is something of a foot-self-shooting art form.

Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s question to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was actually not that provocative. Maimane wanted to know on what date Ramaphosa, as the Leader of Government Business, was made aware of the intended use of (a) signal jammers and (b) other additional security measures used during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 12 February 2015.

Ramaphosa’s answer could have been anything from “I was not made aware”, to “I was briefed on arrangements for the SONA but was not given specifics regarding security measures”. Or he could have said: “I was informed that jammers would be used outside to ensure a no-fly zone but was not given information that these would interfere with the cellular network inside Parliament”.

Any of these explanations would have been plausible. Of course the opposition parties would have tried to draw Ramaphosa out on the matter in supplementary questions, asking why he was not provided with detailed arrangements as Leader of Government Business, or why the executive was involved in Parliament’s security arrangements. It was nothing someone with Ramaphosa’s skill and savvy could not have handled.

And let’s not forget that many people witnessed him sending a note to State Security Minister David Mahlobo and shortly afterwards, the signal was restored. So Ramaphosa was really not the person who could be hung out to dry on this matter. President Jacob Zuma, who rarely wades into controversial issues, addressed the matter twice – in his response to the SONA debate and after a meeting with editors – stressing on both occasions that the signal jamming should not have happened and would not happen again.

The use of police officers disguised as parliamentary security to forcibly remove the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) from the House is a trickier issue to navigate, however. So far government has not provided any substantial answers as to the makeup of the security contingent, who deployed them, what their mandate was and why they removed the entire EFF caucus. Ramaphosa needed to be careful that he did not get caught lying as the truth behind this matter could compromise a whole range of people. The fact that the security contingent was in disguise means the operation was set up to deceive.

Asking these questions of the Deputy President was a gamble worth taking by Maimane because of government’s propensity to inflict pain on itself. It paid off.

Ramaphosa declined to answer. “Hearings in relation to this matter will be happening in our courts in the next few days and for that reason I feel constrained to answer the question,” he said. He went on to say as a matter of principle, there should be a free flow of information in Parliament and that as President Jacob Zuma had said, the signal jamming “should not be allowed and should not happen again”.

“As regards the specific issues raised, I will be prepared to answer those once the legal cases have been concluded,” Ramaphosa said.

The DA’s chief whip John Steenhuisen accused Ramaphosa of trying to hide behind the sub judice rule, using the court cases undertaken by the media to avoid answering the question. Ramaphosa dug in his heels, saying he was advised to wait until the outcome of the court matters. Media houses and the South African National Editors Forum applied for a court order to prevent any future interference with media coverage in Parliament, also wanting an independent television feed. Steenhuisen tried to argue that this matter had no impact on the question Ramaphosa was asked.

Regarding the signal jamming, Mahlobo issued a statement a few days after the SONA, claiming the disruption was caused “by an operational error by the member on duty”. If this was the government line, it is puzzling why Ramaphosa didn’t stick to it. If he received legal advice not to answer the question, it is possible that the presidency’s lawyers are concerned that holes can be poked in Mahlobo’s story once the matter is heard in court.

It is in fact not that difficult to do so. Mahlobo claimed in his media statement that the signal jammer was used to secure the airspace above Parliament “when the Deputy President and President were in transit until the time of taking of salute at the doorsteps of the Parliament, estimated between 18:35-19:00”. He said the operator then “failed to properly terminate the device” once everybody was in the House.

However, reporters discovered the signal jam from 4:30pm and tried to draw attention to it, including through chants in Parliament. The hapless operator and a range of security personnel present in and around the House would certainly have been alerted to the fact that the jammer was on. The second basis on which Mahlobo’s version can be shown to be untruthful is that after the media’s repeated chanting and journalists taking pictures of the device, it was moved out of the media bay and hidden away. The signal remained scrambled even then. If it had been an “operational error”, whoever had the authority to move and conceal the device certainly would have switched it off.

Mahlobo repeated in Parliament on Wednesday that there was no executive authorisation for the signal jamming and that it occurred as an “error”. He said DA MP David Maynier’s question about whether he would accept political responsibility for the operational error and resign was “irrelevant”. He also told opposition MPs that they could not understand the role of the executive because they had not been part of it.

EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was rebuked for repeatedly exclaiming “You beat us up” when he demanding answers from Mahlobo about their forceful removal from the House on the night of the SONA. Ndlozi refused the House Chairperson’s instruction to withdraw the remark.

After a relatively stable few days in Parliament, the temperature is again rising thanks to the unnecessary controversy over the signal jamming, which all sides have agreed was wrong. Ramaphosa is one of the people who have been trying to stabilise relations with the opposition in Parliament. If he adopted an approach that would no doubt antagonise the opposition, there could be more to the story than what meets the eye.

If the presidency’s legal team realised the flimsiness of Mahlobo’s version, and was concerned that other information could be exposed in court, their advice to Ramaphosa not to answer the question makes sense. It could save him from embarrassment later down the line, and possibly a more serious charge of lying to Parliament. If, however, Ramaphosa opted not to answer because of government’s customary duck and dive approach to all controversies, this will be another issue that will haunt the ANC for the foreseeable future.

It also causes agitation ahead of next week’s much-anticipated question session to the president. Controversy is already brewing on the EFF question to Zuma about when he would pay back the money for non-security upgrades at his Nkandla home. The question resulted in the disruption in Parliament last August when the riot police was called in.

Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj said Zuma had responded to outstanding questions as written replies, implying that there was no need to revisit the Nkandla matter. It is doubtful that the opposition would let it lie there.

So the signal jamming joins Nkandla on the mountain of issues the government could easily dispense with but instead opts to keep alive. Such spectacular self-sabotage really does take special skill and effort. DM

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa responds to questions in the National Assembly, Parliament, Cape Town on Wednesday, 4 March 2015. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA

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