Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana says the country’s security forces have given the assurance all their high level measures and actions would be “within the ambit of the law” for next week’s State of the Nation Address (SONA). By MARIANNE MERTEN.
It’s not quite clear whether that means there would be no deployment of a signal jammer for the joint sitting of Parliament for President Jacob Zuma in the National Assembly chamber, or simply that more attention would be paid so that there’s no repeat of last year’s embarrassment when, according to the official State Security Agency’s (SSA) explanation, a junior operative forgot to switch off the signal jammer in good time.
But what is certain is that on SONA day – February 11, marking 26 years to the day Nelson Mandela walked out of jail a free man in 1990 – nothing can go wrong to detract from the president’s speech setting out the priorities for the year ahead.
It also is an election year, coming at a time of increasingly tough economic conditions and a biting drought that is set to push up food prices as farmers lose livestock and cannot plant the necessary hectares. There are also the controversial reforms to workers’ retirement provident funds which upset the ANC’s alliance partner, labour federation Cosatu. Add to that an on-going turmoil in the ANC ranks particularly over the nomination of would-be-councilors and you have a volatile climate. There have been at least three reported occasions in three provinces that have led to protest, fisticuffs and even death.
On Monday Mgidlana presented the calm face of efficient planning for what he repeatedly called the country’s top level, high security event. Security services were on board, he said, and there was no reason to believe parliamentarians would misbehave. In any case, Parliament has all the necessary new rules to prevent disruptions and to evict unruly parliamentarians of the SONA joint-sitting.
Nkandlagate is no longer before Parliament, although two days before SONA 2016, the Constitutional Court will be seized with the R215 million taxpayer-funded security upgrades at Zuma’s rural homestead. On February 9 the court hears the EFF case that Zuma acted unconstitutionally by not implementing the Public Protector’s findings that he must repay at least some of the costs of non-security upgrades at his rural homestead such as the cattle kraal, chicken-run, swimming pool and amphitheatre.
The Constitutional Court was approached late last year after the ANC numerical majority in the National Assembly closed the book by supporting Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko’s findings that the president had nothing to repay because “even the non-security upgrades were security upgrades.”
What Parliament will struggle to avoid is the parlous state of the economy. The EFF has promised to raise December’s “musical chairs” of finance ministers. EFF leader Julius Malema this week told the Sowetan: “He (Zuma) will never have a state of the nation alone. We will share the stage with him. As he is about to speak, we will press the button demanding that he tell us the reason behind the finance minister’s sacking. That move collapsed the economy”.
Meanwhile, the DA has toyed with calling for a snap debate on Zuma’s presidency although due to the lack of rules allowing for this, the call may well be delayed until the following week’s parliamentary debate on SONA. A caucus on Thursday will discuss SONA details, but DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said “the President cannot expect business as usual on the evening (of SONA)”.
Monday’s briefing by Parliament’s administration on SONA was light on details of the security planning and the logistics for the traditional opening of the national legislature. Not even this year’s theme – “Following up on our commitments to the people” – officially emerged. But the point was made that the new parliamentary rules would not tolerate any attempts at disruption. Rule 13, which bans anyone from speaking without the presiding officer’s permission, was also highlighted.
On November 26, 2015 amid a time crunch to finish up the business of the year, both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) passed new rules for joint sittings. This was confirmed by senior parliamentary staff present at the media briefing, citing minutes of proceedings in both the NCOP and National Assembly. These minutes show only the EFF objected in the National Assembly. Of course, the broader review of rules remains outstanding. Not yet adopted are, amongst other, the proposals on a dress code which would effectively outlaw EFF makarapas – red overalls and domestic workers’ dress.
The new Rule14GA for joint sittings allows for the removal of a member, Parliament-speak for an MP or NCOP delegate, to be removed and be immediately suspended, pending a disciplinary review by a parliamentary committee to be established for this purpose. If the parliamentarian refuses to leave the joint sitting when ordered to do so, the parliamentary protection services are called to assist, and “use such force as may be reasonably necessary to overcome any resistance”. No parliamentarian may intervene, one way or the other. If he or she does, they are also immediately suspended and removed from the chamber. The security forces, defined in the Constitution as the SAPS, South African National Defense Force (SANDF) and the intelligence services, may assist to escort the unruly member off the parliamentary precinct.
If there is “a reasonable prospect of violence”, or actual violence, the presiding officer may suspend proceedings, and under the 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, call for the intervention of security forces.
With the new parliamentary rules for joint sittings in place, Mgidlana emphasised security arrangements for SONA “with colleagues in the state” was top level in keeping with a high profile event. After all it brings together the three spheres of the state and others, as he also specifically mentioned the attendance of “captains of business”, the diplomatic corps and civil society.
“We have to do things within the law. What we are expecting from all (security) agencies is to act within the ambit of the law. That assurance is there. We are quite confident,” he said. “We are planning for a successful event…an event free from any eventuality.”
Last year’s explanations and apologies over the signal jammer snafu by the SSA and the State Security Minister David Mahlobo had been sufficient; this year there had been no request for such a device. At the time National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete publicly acknowledged the presiding officers had been briefed about the signal jammer, but little attention was paid to details. “We became aware there was a plan for certain equipment to be deployed without necessarily knowing details because it was an item dealing with what measures had to be taken for the protection, in particular, of the head of state and the deputy president,” she said at a media briefing two days after the disrupted SONA.
On February 11 the pomp and ceremony linked to SONA, which marks the start of the parliamentary year, will get coverage in the media. There’ll be the usual fashion parade on a heavily-guarded red carpet. As always it will be accompanied by the fashionistas’ evaluations as to which ministers, parliamentarians and their partners were fashion do’s and don’ts.
Despite the rules and security arrangement an underlying tension that remains. DM
Photo: South African president, Jacob Zuma during the State Of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, 12 February 2015. EPA/RODGER BOSCH/POOL