Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appearances in the National Assembly tend to bring a much less charged atmosphere than that of his superior, and his question session on Wednesday was no exception. Indeed, it felt like a breath of fresh air to hear a Parliamentary sitting not dominated by the Z-word – opening up space for discussions about Eskom, xenophobia, and how much the EFF wants to eat the rich. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Unlike with President Jacob Zuma, the opposition only really has two major avenues of personal attack on Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The first is the spectre of his involvement as a Lonmin board member in the Marikana massacre. The second is the enormous wealth the former trade unionist has amassed.
Marikana stayed out of the House on Wednesday, but the EFF took advantage of the opportunity to remind Ramaphosa of just how rich he was.
“One day the poor will come and knock on your door,” EFF MP Sam Matiase told Ramaphosa darkly, reminding him of the occasion on which Ramaphosa bid R18 million for a single buffalo at an auction.
Matiase went on to cite the line originally attributed to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
EFF MPs clearly looked hungry enough for Ramaphosa to remonstrate that they should “play the ball, not the man”, prompting responding EFF heckles of “The man is the ball!”
The man may be the (tasty) ball, but Ramaphosa was treated generally with a great deal more respect in the House from the opposition than President Zuma can hope to enjoy these days. Even Ramaphosa’s comments on Eskom – normally a guaranteed lightning-rod – were greeted reasonably calmly, despite a lack of detail on government’s plans.
Dealing with the surprise suspension of Eskom’s top brass last week, Ramaphosa stressed that the action constituted “a leave of absence just for three months”, while an inquiry was concluded. He gave no guarantees that the relevant individuals would retain their positions, however, saying only that a “much clearer executive future” would be determined post-inquiry.
In response to a suggestion last week by trade union Solidarity that Eskom might axe up to 3,400 white employees, Ramaphosa said: “We need all our skilled people in Eskom.”
Seeming to discount the possibility of race-based retrenchments at the parastatal, Ramaphosa said that the race was on “to get skilled people for Eskom – not on skin colour, but on skill”. Simultaneously, however, he highlighted the need for Eskom to “make sure that as many of the young black people who can come into Eskom, who have qualification and skills, should be brought into Eskom”.
Ramaphosa also announced the appointment of six industry experts to an Eskom advisory panel to help guide the government on the current power crisis. Among them are former Eskom chairperson Bobby Godsell, former Spoornet CEO Dolly Mokgatle, and UCT professor Anton Eberhard.
“Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, there is,” Ramaphosa assured the National Assembly, prompting the retort from the DA’s Mmusi Maimane: “I wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel will come on between 2pm and 3pm, and between 6pm and 7pm.”
In a week where it was reported that a Zimbabwean woman was burnt alive by a crowd near Pretoria after being accused of using witchcraft to kill an eight-year-old boy, Ramaphosa was also asked for assurances that the government was taking action to stem a seemingly resurgent tide of xenophobia.
Ramaphosa was in stern and emphatic mood in response. “No amount of economic hardship and discontent can justify attacks on foreign nationals,” he said, adding that South Africa was a signatory to the Geneva Protocol, which safeguards the treatment of refugees.
He suggested that criminals were “trying to exploit some of the difficulties that affect communities, including competition for resources”.
When pressed for more practical details on what government was actually doing to root out xenophobic violence, however, Ramaphosa was vague. He said that the government was spreading the word through education, and that the Department of Arts & Culture was producing pamphlets to help “explain our values”.
“It will take time,” Ramaphosa said, and neatly flipped focus on to the problem of racism in the Western Cape. The Deputy President said he had friends who had tried to book rooms in Cape Town hotels and were “blocked when [managers] hear surnames”. He said he also knew of young black people attempting to rent flats in Cape Town and being denied tenancy on account of their race.
While he spoke, DA MPs heckled at him to provide proof of his allegations.
The House stayed with the xenophobia theme when Speaker Baleka Mbete granted permission to the EFF’s Primrose Sonti to issue an apology for utterances she made to the National Assembly the previous day. On that occasion, she had railed against ANC members in Marikana selling toilets to “Shangaans”. EFF leader Julius Malema had intervened directly afterwards to explain that she was using “Shangaan” as Gauteng slang to mean “foreigners” rather than a distinct tribal grouping, but apparently this clarification was felt insufficient.
On Wednesday Sonti delivered a heartfelt apology for the use of the term, saying that she had intended to refer to undocumented migrants. MPs seemed to accept her apology, with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi shaking her warmly by the hand afterwards. Nobody seemed in the mood to quibble about whether what she was saying might anyway have been quite xenophobic.
The spirit of peace extended to Speaker Baleka Mbete, who dealt with a previous issue about whether President Jacob Zuma was allowed to make reference to the events of 21 August 2014 – when EFF MPs were forcibly ejected from the House. The EFF had previously objected to Zuma’s comments about it, saying the matter was sub judice. Mbete tentatively sided with the EFF, saying that great caution needed to be exercised on the discussion of matters going through the legal process.
In response, the DA’s John Steenhuisen snarkily commended Mbete on “one of your more inspired rulings”.
A more good-natured spirit was also evident in the tone of inter-party bickering. Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande took to his feet to demand whether it was “parliamentary” for the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi – an increasingly vocal figure in the National Assembly – to be wearing “exactly the same socks as yesterday”. The socks in question were eye-catchingly stripey.
Ndlozi, who is colloquially referred to as “the People’s Bae” due to his boyish good looks, defended his footwear on the grounds that they were “happy socks”.
His opponents “are jealous, essentially,” he charged.
One of the places where the kumbaya was not active, however, was on the EFF’s own benches. Renegade EFF MPs Andile Mngxitama and Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala made an unexpected return to the National Assembly, despite the fact that their feud with EFF leadership rages on. The two were not dressed in EFF overalls and chose to sit at a safe distance behind leader Malema.
Some speculated that their return at this time might have been motivated by pragmatism: last year Parliament’s Joint Rules Committee reported that it had adopted a policy on Parliamentary attendance stipulating that members who are absent for long periods without permission could be fined or even lose their seats. It’s unclear whether Winnie Mandela – whose absenteeism in Parliament is the stuff of legend – has a special exemption. DM
Photo: 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
Full Trotsky: EFF deals with Andile Mngxitama, on Daily Maverick