Unlike the tightly orchestrated political showcases of rallies – #fillupthestadium has become the most recent manifestation of political ego-tripping – Parliament is home to a different, and possibly significantly more important, way of doing politics. MPs as public representatives act in the broader interest of South Africa: Parliament, after all, is not a party indaba, but the legislative sphere of state with constitutional oversight and holding to account responsibilities.
Some of that political work is institution-related and is largely dealt with in the Chief Whips’ Forum that brings together the top political functionaries of the political parties represented at Parliament. Work at this forum includes smoothing out the wrinkles in the business of the people’s assembly to ensure the programming committee can agree, that the underlying logistics and other considerations are resolved so laws are processed smoothly (more or less) and ministers and presidents are held to account, also with regards to those pesky written questions the executive would prefer to ignore.
But much more of this political work unfolds quietly and strictly behind closed doors in direct relation to the heady politics of South Africa.
That was the case in 2017 – a time of #GuptaLeaks, ANC stalwarts increasingly speaking out against Zuma’s dubious motives and actions, and public anti-Zuma protests – when an umpteenth DA motion of no confidence in the president was brought to the National Assembly in very different circumstances; the possibility of a secret ballot.
For EFF leader Julius Malema then to later in July 2019 out his secretary-general meeting with then ANC MP Derek Hanekom, delinked from the context of the time – and his own role in those political machinations – is not only selective, it’s also little more than populist politicking. A play to the public gallery of EFF supporters who had gathered outside the Gauteng North High Court, where the EFF joined Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s opposition (ultimately unsuccessful) of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan’s interdict against remedial action pending a review of her report on the so-called “rogue unit” of the South African Revenue Service (SARS).
Back in 2017, on 22 June, the Constitutional Court unanimously agreed that a secret ballot could be an option, but left the decision to National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete. But Mbete only announced her decision in favour of a secret ballot – and in the interest of South Africa – on the eve of the 8 August 2017 no confidence vote.
That had left some six weeks ripe for strategising, coordinating and planning. Not just among opposition parties, but also between opposition parties and the governing ANC. In the parliamentary numbers game, a no confidence motion by secret ballot held the possibility that the constitutionally required two-thirds majority threshold for Zuma’s removal could be reached as dissatisfied ANC MPs could buck the party line of protecting the president without fear of repercussions.
It was one of those meetings, this one between EFF Secretary-General Godrich Gardee and Hanekom, that Malema decided to disclose on 24 July, some two years later, in a calculated political point-scoring tactic just days before an ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting where in the factional divisiveness of the governing ANC it would be taken up.
The EFF leader conveniently forgot his own meetings with 60 ANC MPs, according to his own public statements, over-delivering that August 2017 no confidence motion in Zuma.
“I’m not talking to opposition MPs. I’m talking to ANC MPs. I’ve spoken to more than 60. They’ve committed. They’ve asked that this thing must be secret; they will deliver it. They are not happy themselves,” Malema is on public record in an interview with Reuters TV as saying.
Neither Malema, nor Gardee nor Hanekom, or anyone else having cross-party political private meetings, did anything unfamiliar or alien to parliamentary politics in democratic South Africa.
The motion of no confidence did not succeed – it was rejected, 198 votes against, 177 for and nine abstentions – but the vote breakdown showed that some 35 ANC MPs voted with the opposition.
In the world of EFF populist, some say fascist, strong-man politics, Malema’s threat to publish the list of those ANC MPs who voted with the opposition has since been repeated by other leaders like EFF Treasurer Leigh-Ann Mathys, according to City Press.
It’s the EFF strategy and tactics alongside an increasing turn to race identity politics in the very different political times in the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Like the EFF’s campaign against Gordhan, now dubbed dismissively “Honourable Jamnadas”, in reference to his second name, its sights had been set on Hanekom, another close supporter of Ramaphosa, who coincidentally also was party disciplinary boss who oversaw Malema’s 2012 expulsion from the ANC.
But by outing his secretary-general’s meeting with Hanekom, Malema has committed a cardinal breach of parliamentary politics – breaking the trust that private meetings conducted across party p0ltical lines for a greater joined purpose remain private.
This breach of trust may well be one step too far.
The reaction from other opposition parties in Parliament was almost immediate. Two days after Malema’s comments outside the Pretoria court, on 26 July during Deputy President David “DD” Mabuza’s parliamentary Q&A, EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was repeatedly shut down.
When Ndlozi persisted on answers on the SARS rogue unit, National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise said she’d accept the deputy president’s answer he could not reply as the matter was in court – and then agreed with DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen’s point the matter of sub judice, again, should be referred to the rules committee. And IFP Chief Whip Narend Singh took a dig: “One can see how loaded this question is…” That was allowed to pass.
Ndlozi’s objection to National Freedom Party MP Shaik Emam’s remark that “those wearing red should have paid their taxes and not looted VBS” by pointing out Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy was wearing red came to nought. Modise ruled Emam’s comment a point of debate and highlighted that “it is not unparliamentary to refer to a political party. In 2014 the EFF took Parliament to court and we lost”.
The EFF has crowed about how its tactics have shaken up a sleepy Parliament, and it can well dismiss other opposition parties alongside the governing ANC.
Malema’s breach of the tradition, practice and convention of parliamentary politics may leave the EFF increasingly isolated on the parliamentary benches. After all, who now would speak to the EFF on anything, knowing that when the EFF finds it politically convenient for its own purposes, it’ll go public even with that which was private.
And that may just signal the raising of the political bar, in the interest of a more robust and rigorous public political discourse. With Parliament leading the way. DM