PARLIAMENTARY NOTEBOOK

The House rises ahead of elections in a last sitting marked by tragedy and electioneering

By Marianne Merten 20 March 2019

The last sitting day of the National Assembly on Wednesday unfolded against the family tragedy of ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu, whose daughter had died the night before. But with Parliament rising for the 8 May elections, the focus was soon back on electioneering and acerbic politicking as MPs from every political party represented in the House used their time on the podium to tout for votes.

The condolences for ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu and his family poured in from early Wednesday morning from across the political spectrum, and the length and breadth of South African society. Just past 7am, he had taken to Twitter: “My eldest daughter, Khwezi Mthembu, last night committed suicide at our Pelican parliamentary village home in #Capetown. We are in deep pain. We don’t know what led her to take her own life at such a tender age of 25 years”.

At Parliament, finance committee chairperson Yunus Carrim called a minute of silence before his committee, alongside three others, started considering illicit financial flows. “I’ve had the privilege for working for five chief whips. I can tell you, he’s very, very good… He’s a very humane person. He’s a remarkable person,” Carrim said of Mthembu, noting also his sense of humour and how he had often “stood between committee chairpersons and members of the executive”. Everyone stood and bowed their heads in committee room E249.

In the House a few hours later, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete started the last sitting also with condolences. “…as presiding officers and on behalf of the House our thoughts and prayers are with our colleague, Honourable Jackson Mthembu, who I hope is watching as we convey our warmest, deepest sympathies as this painful time”.

And then it was on to the first item on the Order Paper, a motion in Mthembu’s name, taken instead by his deputy Doris Dlakude.

Condolences from the podium were made by every MP before their respective speeches, but perhaps most poignant were the words of Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula opening the debate on Human Rights Day. “I want to urge all of us as parents, as mothers as fathers to begin to listen to what our children tell us. I do not know what happened… (but) I know as a mother who lost a son that as parents we need to listen,” she said. Her son Chumani was stabbed to death in October 2015.

Maybe it was a case of eyes on the bigger polling prize, even if Mbete called for decorum “especially on a day like this”. It didn’t take long before the electioneering rhetoric of Vote ANC!”, “Vote DA!”, “Vote EFF!” or “Vote UDM!”, again, rung across the House even on the first order of business, the National Minimum Wage Amendment Bill that was needed to correct wrong clause cross-referencing in the original legislation passed in 2018.

It’s one of those mistakes that can happen under time pressure as the National Assembly has been in an election year. The National Assembly has been pushing a relentless agenda in the past few weeks to wrap up its commitments before closing.

On Tuesday, the House not only approved adoption of three Bills and the new incumbents for the Commission for Gender Equality, but also eight nominees for the SABC board which, if President Cyril Ramaphosa formally makes the appointments, will finally be quorate again. And after a year-long delay following his fraud conviction, Rubben [correct] Mohlaloga was finally removed as Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) chairperson. It was a removal not without last-minute drama that saw the parliamentary communications committee in court as Mohlaloga tried, unsuccessfully, to interdict parliamentary proceedings.

And the House officially agreed to leave the constitutional amendment for land expropriation without compensation for the post-election, new Parliament. The relevant ad hoc committee had adopted a report that it had run out of time to complete this work earlier in March.

On Tuesday, Parliament also unveiled constitutional principles on the stairs of the entrances of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).

Between the president and presiding officers, it was agreed that it was “significant” the constitutional principles were on the steps of Parliament as South Africa celebrated 25 years of freedom and democracy.

These principles have defined the great national endeavour of the last quarter century, inspiring our people, guiding our actions, setting our destination. We should use the opportunity of this anniversary to deeply reflect on whether we have given effect to these principles,” said Ramaphosa in the unveiling ceremony that allowed for sharply controlled smooth optics, unlike on Monday’s unscheduled train stoppage that brought home commuters’ daily hardships.

Mbete agreed. “We witnessed (Parliament’s) birth on 9 May 1994, when Ma’Sisulu (Albertina Sisulu) gracefully stood up to nominate Madiba for election as the first president of a free and democratic South Africa. That marked a massive nation-building project in which Parliament played a leading role of bringing South Africans together – through their public representatives – to build a new country.”

And NCOP Chairperson Thandi Modise added: “The sixth democratic Parliament, to be established after our general election in May, and for subsequent democratic Parliaments, must continue strengthening meaningful links between our people and their public representatives. It’s an enduring task”.

On Wednesday in the House, it was more about electioneering. The Human Rights debate gave a platform as had been Tuesday’s debate on the ANC topic “Growing and transforming South Africa together from an Apartheid state to a thriving democracy”.

ANC MP Grace Kekulu Tseke didn’t mince her words. Voters must reject those who call black South Africans “constitutional black”, a direct reference to the DA’s terminology. “Those people, who advance racial divisions, reject them,” she said, adding later: “The ANC since 1994 has wholeheartedly championed human rights… And on 8 May we’ll enter into a new contract with South Africa”.

DA MP Annelie Lotriet ended her contribution that had described the DA as the party of human rights with her political home election slogan: “Vote for the DA and vote for one South Africa for all”

Wednesday marked a series of endings. Most of the ANC backbenches, and many also among the opposition benches are not returning after the May elections. Although the National Assembly on Wednesday rose for the elections until the day before the 8 May poll – it and members might be recalled, if the need arises.

But for DA MP Seth Motau, his Human Rights Day contribution marked a bitter-sweet moment, as be bid farewell after a decade in Parliament. As United Democratic Movement (UDM) MP Mncedisi Filtane had done earlier. EFF MP Phillip Mhlongo, who ran out of time on the podium, got away with a: “Oh dammit”, usually deemed unparliamentary, when walking off, unlikely to return due to his low ranking. And African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) MPs Cheryllyn Dudley is also gone: “It really is goodbye”. After an insightful farewell of just three months short of two decades in Parliament, she got a standing ovation.

Mbete kicked off the traditional farewells with a focus on parliamentary achievements, challenges, plans and ethics. “The will of our people will, of course, be expressed on the 8thof May and let’s have peaceful elections,” said Mbete: “I thank you very much for our service, collectively, to our people. Thank you very much.”

And DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen had his last word. Referring to the constitutional principles now on the stairs to the National Assembly and NCOP, he said, as parliamentarians, everyone needed to reflect on whether these values have been lived up to.

When we return… we must work every day as hard as we can… to realise these values. Are we placing these values (of the Constitution) into the work as public representatives,” said Steenhuisen. “We look forward to seeing you after the elections – when we come back bigger, better, stronger and braver than before. Farewell!” DM

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