The Sergeant–At-Arms of South Africa’s first democratic parliament was an old-school gentleman who had time to chat to anyone, whatever their station in life. By MARIANNE MERTEN.
Mr. Cleinwerck, the sergeant-at-arms of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament passed away on Thursday, 4th February, five years after his retirement.
Each year for a decade, Godfrey Cleinwerck called me to wish me Happy Birthday. That call will not come this year.
I doubt I was the only one on Mr. Cleinwerck’s list. His contact list was enormous. But it was his attention to detail, personal warmth and quick humour that made him a true mensch.
Thanks to great good fortune, about 15 years ago, this, then-greenhorn parliamentary correspondent fetched up in the office next door to Mr. Cleinwerck’s.
His door was always open. He sat at his paper-laden desk facing the door so that he could easily greet those at its threshold. A television was always on a news channel.
His black robe, cravat, gleaming white gloves and a spare perfectly ironed shirt were always at hand.
Whenever I was baffled by parliamentary rules, protocols, traditions or structures and I had to asked around who could help I was always pointed into Mr. Cleinwerck’s direction. To my surprise, I was not chased out, but helped in a gracious manner. Not once, but on many occasions. What I know today about how Parliament works is in no small measure due to Mr. Cleinwerck, and his amazing institutional knowledge and memory.
While rules, parliamentary practice and traditions were an open chapter for discussions, the going-ons involving parliamentarians, be it in one of the in-house bars or political movements in the days of floor-crossing, and staff were never up even for a light-hearted banter. Mr. Cleinwerck was discreet about such matters.
He was a gentleman and a diplomat.
Even when my office next-door was moved to a separate building across the precinct, he remained accessible to me for a chat on the news of the day, what had happened on the train or an odd headlines in the media.
Mr. Cleinwerck often took the train to work unless it rained or the National Assembly was sitting late. It was part of his routine, like going to see the same barber in town. He was a deeply committed family man, active in the church and his community.
Mr. Cleinwerck started working when he was 17-years-old in the apartheid civil service. Of his 47 working years, 26 were spent in Parliament, first as sergeant-at-arms in the House of Representatives of the controversial tricameral parliament, and the democratic Parliament. Thus it was Mr. Cleinwerck, who announced South Africa’s first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela in the National Assembly on May 24, 1994. It was he who led Madiba from the National Assembly after his retirement farewell sitting on March 26, 1999.
Mr. Cleinwerck also performed ceremonial duties when visiting heads of state came to address a joint sitting.
As sergeant-at-arms Mr. Cleinwerck was an integral part of Parliament’s transformation into a democratic institution. It was a time of when previously unheard applause started erupting in the public gallery, there was a much more relaxed dress code for MPs and generally a more open approach. Other changes included the permanent employment of black and coloured staff, who were sessional workers in the days when the apartheid Parliament sat for only six months of the year and the subsequent unionisation of Parliament’s workforce. These were among the many changes and developments Mr. Cleinwerck’s institutional memory recorded.
It is on public record that years ago he tongue-in-cheek described himself as the “Speaker’s bouncer” or “chief bouncer of the National Assembly”. The A sergeant-at-arms not only carries in the mace, the symbol before the podium marking a sitting is in session, but also ensures unruly MPs leave the House when ordered to do so.
This happened 20 times in the 16 years he was Mr. Cleinwerck was sergeant-at-arms.
I’ve been told that there were a few occasions when stern words had to be used to get a hot under the collar MP to leave, but they did. One simply did not mess with Mr. Cleinwerck.
All this was before the days of when police were trained to move in formation to forcibly remove unruly MPs as witnessed during the 2015 State of the Nation Address.
On November 18, 2010 Parliament hosted a retirement lunch, a farewell tribute for Mr. Cleinwerck in the House.
In one of those rare times of cross-party political agreements, MPs paid tribute to Mr. Cleinwerck.
Among the speakers was ANC MP and stalwart Andrew Mlangeni, who asked everyone to congratulate Mr. Cleinwerck “after a remarkable career”:
“We truly appreciate his hard work and dedication to our country. I’m sure I speak on behalf of all of us in the House when I say that it will be with a sense of nostalgia we will look back on the life and service of such an outstanding public servant and close friend whose contributions were immeasurable”.
I remembered asking Mr. Cleinwerck as retirement loomed whether he would be writing his memoirs and recollections. The question was repeated a few times over the recent years, as his health deteriorated. There was a general agreement his years at Parliament should be noted more permanently. I hope he did take pen to paper.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Cleinwerck. DM
Photo: Godfrey Cleinwerck, the sergeant-at-arms of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament. (Benny Gool).