What was it like being in the hothouse that is the South African Parliament for five hours – protesting the scrambling of the cellular network, watching the much-anticipated moment when the Economic Freedom Fighters interrupted the State of the Nation Address, witnessing the beating of Members of Parliament and then sitting through President Jacob Zuma’s drab speech in what felt like a crime scene? Behind-the-scenes was the stuff of slapstick, a dose of gallantry and even a close encounter with the mysterious white-shirted bouncers.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of glass doors somewhere in the bowels on Parliament. My long white dress is billowing and the tinselled clip in my hair sparkles in the overhead lighting. I am running down a staircase with three men in black following behind me. We’re all out of breath.
I want to laugh. I feel like a character in a 19th century literary classic, running through the stately halls of Pemberley or the like, on some epic mission I would have to write to my non-existent sister Jane about later. If it were the 19th century, I probably would have had a much-needed lace handkerchief and fan to cool off and wipe my sweaty brow.
The three men in black are Democratic Alliance MPs Mmusi Maimane, John Steenhuisen and Mike Waters. They had rushed out of the National Assembly to find me, but now we are lost somewhere in the back passages of Parliament.
Earlier, after a marathon mission to get wristbands for access to the media bay, my colleague Rebecca Davis and I decide to take up our seats early and give the fashion parade on the red carpet a miss. As soon as we enter the media bay, we discover that none of our electronic devices are working.
No problem in this day and age is real unless you bleat about it on social media, so of course we rush back out to tweet about the signal malfunction. It unfortunately does not prompt an immediate rescue mission from the almighty masters of network connectivity, but instead gets sympathetic retweets. More journalists are starting to stream in, every one of them is in the grip of horror once they discover they are in a veritable dead zone, unable to communicate whatever will happen in the chamber over the next few hours.
Editors are rushing in and out of the media bay, some on their phones calling people on the outside for assistance, others in frenzied consultations on how to petition the Speaker Baleka Mbete’s office. One of the journalists in the bay informs us that a technician whispered to him that a scrambling device was installed. So it is not a glitch – although this later became government’s preferred explanation – but a deliberate and sinister act to block communications from the House.
Rebecca and I are trying to inform our Daily Maverick colleagues of the latest through our Whatsapp group, so we make our way towards the front of Parliament where the network is still functional. MPs and guests are streaming in. Surely someone there knows someone who knows someone who can switch the scrambling device off.
We bump into Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa. Considering he is the former Minister of Police, he is sure to know whom to call to resolve the problem.
I explain the situation and our panic at not being able to work. Mthethwa gives an awkward chuckle, like I had just asked him to buy me a Streetwise Two from KFC. He looks around in panic and points into the growing crowd at the doors in front of the House. “Go ask Ronnie,” he says, before turning to greet someone else.
I look where he pointed. “Ronnie” is Ronnie Mamoepa, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman, who is holding court with a group of lovelies in flouncy dresses. I know Ronnie and know he has more chances of bursting into an aria than leaving his social duties to find a way of fixing the network.
I am still weaving through the crowd when I encounter Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Bheki Cele, who starts berating me for “writing nonsense” about him without talking to him. I can’t get a word in edgeways and doubt he’d be in the mood to “shoot to kill” the scrambling device at that moment. Anyway, his wife looks annoyed that their grand entrance into Parliament is being held up.
DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach is bounding down the stairs. I explain the problem. Her response is: “I’ll see to it now.” As we make our way back to the media bay, we bump into Freedom Front Plus MP Corne Mulder. I tell him also and he nods concerned, undertaking to raise it.
There is no telling whether any of these people are genuinely concerned or will say whatever it takes to get us to bugger off. But at this point, it is worth raising with anyone who will hear us.
Back in the media bay, the panic is growing. Some journalists are now fuming about an electronic box they have seen in the control room where the technicians sit. I chase away an unfaithful thought that none of us there would be able to tell the difference between a milking machine and a scrambling device.
The screens in the House are showing visuals of soldiers marching, so there isn’t much time before the presidential convoys arrive. The public galleries are starting to fill up and the chamber below is humming with chatter between MPs. I look over the balcony. Breytenbach is in conversation with Maimane and Steenhuisen.
Steenhuisen looks up and I gesture towards where the device was seen. He points to the entrance at the back of the Speaker’s bay and I nod and rush out. But now the hallways are teeming with people, among them parliamentary security officials. I’m worried they’ll send me back to the designated area for journalists, or worse, kick me out. So I duck into a passage and into a lift. The lift goes to the ground floor but when I come out, it’s an empty passage. I start running around through empty hallways, past locked offices. I find a staircase and go up; eventually I find Steenhuisen, Maimane and Waters.
Now we’re all lost. We go up and down staircases and through more deserted passages. Suddenly there’s a hallway and a group of men in white shirts and black pants are standing around. We burst into a room and there are more of them. They look startled to see us. Must be the catering staff for the banquet later, I think.
We ask if they know where the media bay is and they shake their heads. One points down the passage. Nobody is speaking. After more weaving around, we eventually find ourselves in the front hallway of Parliament. It must have been what the Israelites felt like when they found The Promised Land.
“Did you see all those policemen in plain clothes?” Steenhuisen asks me.
“Hmm,” I respond, thinking he’s just being paranoid about the poor caterers.
Back in the media bay, other journalists are in full navy-seal mode. They tell Maimane and co that the scrambling box was hastily removed and locked in a room on the other end of the bay. They show the DA MPs pictures of it on their phones. Waters storms towards the room door, ready to break it down and switch off the box – or whatever it is you do to a scrambling device.
But the door opens easily, leading into another passage. The box has disappeared. Waters is robbed of his moment of gallantry. Steenhuisen says they will raise the matter of the blocked signal in the House.
I leave the DA MPs to find their way back and retire my Jane Austen character.
Everyone in the media bay is agitated and irritated by government officials taking up our seats and also scoffing at our “overreaction” to the blocked signal. Some are trying to convince us that the signal is in fact working. Primedia’s Yusuf Abramjee says we should hold a “silent protest”.
“How is that different from what we normally do here?” Rebecca whispers. With nobody keen on Option A, Abramjee suggests we all walk out in protest. After all the trouble to get in? No way.
So we go for Option C: protest to demand the restoration of the signal. “Bring back the signal” is the obvious choice for a chant, but people are looking at each hesitantly. Surely it is step too far to make a racket in Parliament at the State of the Nation Address? But, if we do not speak up, we condone the attempt to censor us.
We begin chanting, rather sheepishly at first. The ambassadors in the bay next to our look astonished, as if we had started doing the Macarena. After shouting for five minutes, by which time the DA and EFF MPs had joined in, we’re exhausted. How do people do this for days in the blazing sun, running up and down the streets?
At the second round of chanting, something bizarre happens. The ANC caucus starts shouting “ANC! ANC! ANC!” drowning us out. We fall silent, looking at each other puzzled. Why are they posturing against us? Surely the ANC that led our liberation struggle and negotiated the rights and freedoms we now enjoy should be chanting with us.
When Steenhuisen raises the matter in the House, backed up by Maimane, Mulder and the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu, some of us applaud. Even then, it feels wrong and awkward. We are there to tell the story, not become part of the commotion, and side with some of the parties. But this political crisis has now sucked us all in, impacted on our work and made us despondent about our country.
When the men I thought were caterers filed into the House, I felt a prickly sensation on my neck – like when you see a bad accident. I held up my phone to record the assault and removal of the EFF MPs; it is my job to bring the story to the world but my mind is desperate to escape from the dreadful scenes playing out below.
Eventually President Jacob Zuma stands up again to resume reading his speech. He laughs his deep bellowing laugh. I shudder and hear Rebecca gasp next to me.
During the speech, I look around the public gallery. It feels like a crime scene and many people look shaken and restless. Nobody is unaffected. Among those present were former presidents, business leaders and heads of state-owned companies, the leaders of Chapter Nine institutions and foreign diplomats. Down below were the leaders of the judiciary. We had all been sucked into the muck.
The Opening of Parliament is meant to be an occasion of national pride, a display of pageantry, a celebration of our democratic system. This year it was a fiasco of epic proportions that left us all feeling violated.
Since Thursday night, a national minister has slammed the media over the protest, accusing us aligning ourselves with opposition parties. Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini said we undermined parliamentary decorum and should have staged the protest outside.
Would the signal have been restored if we had? Would anyone have paid any attention to the curtailment of media freedom if we had not resorted to extreme measures that left us feeling humiliated? And if people in in the ANC and Cabinet now also view us as the enemy, how long before the white-shirted bouncers toss us out too for exercising our freedoms?
“Bring back the signal” may have echoes of “pay back the money”, but it was actually a spin-off from “bring back our girls”, a widely supported campaign for the release of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Branding the media as adversaries is petty and indicative of the paranoia now pervasive in the ANC and government.
If only this had been a classic tale, where the villains and heroes are distinct and happy endings are possible. Instead it is a tragic story of where our country is, a new disaster unfolding with every page turned, and absent of any sense or sensibility.
At what point do we also become cockroaches? DM
Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having “been there and done it” – from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story.