South Africa

PARLIAMENTARY NOTEBOOK

Normalising armed security forces in the House, and the Speaker faces No Confidence motion

Normalising armed security forces in the House, and the Speaker faces No Confidence motion
Speaker of the National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Until Sona 2023, no presiding officer had called in armed, armoured and camouflaged security forces into the chamber of lawmakers. Here’s why such a call for the deployment of police – an executive instrument – is troubling. 

The fallout after the President’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) continues in Parliament, where an EFF motion of no confidence in National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is being processed and the Rules Committee is considering the disruptions.

What broke the proverbial camel’s back was when Mapisa-Nqakula became the first presiding officer in democratic South Africa to call armed, armoured and camouflage-clad security forces into the House.

That members of the presidential counter-assault unit, judging from their camouflage uniforms, and others like presidential bodyguards, took no time to get there indicates there was detailed backroom planning, as did having coppers at the ready nearby.

Crucially, security forces, including the police, are instruments of the executive, a separate sphere of state to the national legislature that has its own parliamentary protection service.

Up until 9 February 2023, disruptions, even at State of the Nation Addresses, were dealt with by Parliament’s own security service as the law and parliamentary rules provide. 

The trigger for security force deployment at Sona 2023? Some EFF MPs taking their protest against Cyril Ramaphosa and his Phala Phala farm forex scandal to the side of the stage where the President was sitting.

Whether that was an immediate threat to life so as to justify calling in armed and armoured security forces under the 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act depends on which side you find yourself on.

For Cabinet, it was the right thing to do. 

“Generally, South Africa is happy how police have acted,” said Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele during last Thursday’s televised Cabinet briefing on 16 February. “You know in South Africa there is a limitation of rights and security is a very critical matter… I think police decided to err on the side of caution,” he said.

For the EFF, Mapisa-Nqakula calling in the cops violated the Constitution and rules, “disqualified her as a legitimate Speaker” and thus triggered the EFF’s motion of no confidence against her.

She “made it worse by calling the security forces of South Africa to enter the chambers to intimidate peaceful members of Parliament,” EFF leader Julius Malema said, later adding: “Those who are in power, if they do not have answers, they may be tempted to call in the security forces to intimidate those who are holding them accountable.”

Series of failings

DA Chief Whip Siviwe Gwarube said Mapisa-Nqakula’s failure to maintain order in the House – and subsequently calling in armed police to the chamber in violation of the separation of powers – was the latest in a series of failings for Parliament.

“A parliament that works would have never nominated and elected a Speaker who has a questionable record in government and who views Parliament as an extension of the executive,” said Gwarube in her Sona debate contribution.

“A working parliament would have grabbed the opportunity with both hands following the Zondo Commission report into State Capture. Under this Speaker, there’s a deliberate reluctance to deal with the findings of the report.

“A working parliament would not have shamelessly shielded a sitting president from accountability following the multiple crimes that took place on his Phala Phala farm. It would have voted to investigate the President.”

Opposition parties have long been dissatisfied about the defence minister-turned-Speaker. Mapisa-Nqakula frequently reads off a set of papers before her, sometimes not able to identify the MP on the floor, or forgetting to state the rules and ending up saying things like, “Ag man”.

Considerations for a motion of no confidence have made the rounds in opposition corridors since last year.

National Assembly Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli was considering the EFF’s No Confidence motion in the Speaker, Parliament confirmed in a text message on Friday, 17 February.

‘Soft landing’

Baleka Mbete, Mapisa-Nqakula’s predecessor, also faced a motion of no confidence in September 2014 brought jointly by five opposition parties, including the DA, the EFF and the United Democratic Movement on the grounds that she could not be an unbiased Speaker while also being the ANC’s national chairperson. 

The opposition parties walked out when the ANC  moved to amend the motion into one of confidence in Mbete.

“Parliament needs to be rebuilt [to have] the structure and the institutional capacity to do what was entrusted to us by the Constitution,” said Gwarube in Friday’s text message.

“The DA opposed the election of Mapisa-Nqakula as Speaker of the National Assembly because her position in Parliament was used as a soft landing after her dismal performance in government. Her performance as presiding officer in Parliament [makes it] clear that she’s ill-suited for the role.”

Breaching the House

Sona 2023 reflects an escalation of deploying security forces, a tool of the executive, to the separate legislative sphere of state. 

The first time uniformed police came close to breaching the House was in August 2014 during the EFF’s “Pay back the money” protest in the Nkandla saga that scuppered question time of then president Jacob Zuma. Police stopped short at the doors of the National Assembly, which was suspended.

Three months later, at least six police in body armour entered the House during a November 2014 late-night sitting, even as parliamentary security were in the process of evicting EFF MP Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela. She had not left as ordered after calling Zuma a “liar” and a “thief”.

Several opposition MPs intervened when police stepped in; a handful were injured in scuffles and later laid assault complaints. At the time, police had taken over a committee room on the third floor, using it as a so-called JOC (joint operational command) while police officers were at the ready in other rooms. (Note: this reporter observed both.)

Bouncers

At Sona 2015, remember that signal jammer? A junior State Security operative was blamed for forgetting the device. The courts subsequently ruled that the use of such equipment in the national legislature was not on.

That Sona also saw the deployment of a white-shirted phalanx wearing “high risk unit” tags. It included members of the riot police, officially the public order police.

By Sona 2016, a group of former police officers were speedily recruited to join Parliament’s in-house protection services. The PPS was put in place to deal with rowdy MPs under new rules. They were dubbed “bouncers”, a label that stuck.

Sona 2017 again saw PPS members evict rowdy MPs, but also soldiers armed with automatic rifles on the parliamentary precinct – in violation of the law and parliamentary rules and practice. 

But until Sona 2023 no presiding officer had called in armed, armoured and camouflaged security forces into the chamber of lawmakers.

Such a call for the deployment of police – an executive instrument – to the separate legislative sphere with its constitutional responsibility to hold the executive to account is troubling.

As the Constitutional Court put it in March 2016: “[F]or Parliament properly to exercise its oversight function over the executive, it must operate in an environment that guarantees members freedom from arrest, detention, prosecution or harassment of whatever nature. Absent this freedom, Parliament may be cowed, with the result that oversight over the executive may be illusory.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    So we’ll circus another ANC victory in parliament to do what? Affirm the status quo, is all. Parli is an expensive joke and a distraction from getting things done, while Cyril plays with tin soldiers in the presidency.

  • L Dennis says:

    Mapisa-Nqakula acted correctly lawlessness should not be tolerated. Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Pay back the VBS money.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    What can one expect when the best person for the job is not appointed and you settle for a political appointment?

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