Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 11 August 2015

Parliament: Ndlozi’s ‘mistress’ slight demeans women

Parliament’s rules and practices aim to mitigate against name calling, rudeness and other demeaning or abusive language and to promote mutual respect, a cornerstone of any meaningful dialogue. Despite his claims to the contrary, EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s referring to the speaker and a female minister as ‘mistresses’ failed to show them respect in our National Assembly during the month in which we should be promoting universal women's rights.

Anyone who stands up and argues that Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi meant to compliment or show respect for National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete when he referred to her as ‘mistress’ during President Jacob Zuma’s Q&A in Parliament on Thursday is not being honest.

A few minutes later Ndlozi shouted down Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu who had risen on a point of order. Again, he objectified Zulu as “mistress”.

Parliament has conventions, rules and practices that mitigate against name-calling, rudeness and other demeaning or abusive language. MPs are asked to refer to each other as ‘honourable members’, this is not done for fun and games but to promote mutual respect, which is a cornerstone of any meaningful dialogue in any society of group. The speaker is also an MP and may be referred to as ‘honourable speaker’, ‘madam speaker’ or ‘honourable member’.

During his petulant manchild showdown, Ndlozi, fully aware of the television cameras focused on him, tried to compete with his senior leaders in delivering cringeworthy lines. He stooped to a new low by referring to fellow female MPs as ‘mistresses’ at their place of work, where the rules say they should be referred to equally as ‘honourable members’.

After some Twitter followers expressed disgust, Ndlozi defended himself by saying he used the term ‘mistress’ respectfully as in his school days he referred to female teachers as mistresses, a “sign of authority and respect”.

Referring to a married woman as mistress is not only rude but sexist. Whether in English culture or any Bantu culture. That this occurred in our National Assembly during the month in which we should be promoting universal women’s rights is appalling.

Aside from the important aspect of treating women as lesser colleagues in a workplace, the ‘mistresses’ Ndlozi said he was invoking were government-employed teachers during apartheid who had the most trying of times and often complained that it was common for them not to be paid on time. The gender pay gap was enormous, with male teachers earning far more.

Dr Ruth Mompati, one of the key women in the fight against apartheid, got married in 1952 and lost her teaching job due to apartheid laws that stated that ‘mistresses’, black female teachers, were not supposed to get married. She had to begin again, studying shorthand and typing so she could take a job as secretary. Many women teachers ended up without alternative careers.

Not only were these ‘mistresses’ fired for marrying, male teachers received an increase when they got married and had a family to support. Later when the regulations were relaxed, pregnant married female teachers were given unpaid maternity leave while unmarried females who fell pregnant were summarily dismissed.

Mistresses had no value, they were subhuman and treated like slaves they were. Yet, they cared for us and did not transfer their hardships to students.

When the regulations on ‘mistresses’ was eased, we had ‘ma’ams’ too – the married ones. If Ndlozi wanted to show respect to women in Parliament, he would have referred to them as ma’am.

The clear thrust of Ndlozi’s use of the term ‘mistress’ is to reduce these women’s status. It is time someone told him that it’s not cute. The House of Assembly is not a stage for stand-up comedy, it is a serious institution serving the people.

The male term for mistress in the manner Ndlozi claims to have used it is, sir. I am certain he is about to address any opposition MP as sir. Ndlozi’s many fans enjoyed the rude remarks. Some of the tweets mentioned Ndlozi’s referring to Zulu as “ginger” – a reference to her hair colour

While Ndlozi violated the rules and degraded women in Parliament, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee tweeted that the EFF “is well trained” on the National Assembly rules as they broke each rule in the book including those relating to women. I’ll be very interested to read this rule book she referenced.

The House sitting went on as expected with Zuma managing to answer all of the questions on the Question Paper, but many people on social media still thought the session was chaotic. I do not share this view. The session proceeded according to the principles of democracy, with the minor fracas at the beginning of the session pointing to a strong and maturing democracy in which those who have something to say will push and test the limits.

The attempts by the EFF to push some demands and abuse privilege does not immediately mean there is chaos. Democracy is untidy, uncomfortable and tedious. In the end the show went on and point scoring occurred across the aisles, with Floyd Shivambu once again raising the question he repeats each time he has a chance to speak – tax evasion by multinational companies.

While Shivambu has been asking this question since he was sworn in as an MP last year and appears to have nothing else to speak about, he asks it repeatedly to show the gallery “I’m smarter than you” – the typical attitude of young men which characterises the EFF’s input into our body politics. Because of their age group, this is normal and should be expected. This is gallery politics at its best, hence the internal competition for a cringeworthy soundbite which reveals juvenility and nothing more.

During the first supplementary questions, the quick-on-his-feet EFF leader Julius Malema let the public in on his deeper thinking about matters before the Question Paper, when he rose to deride the Democratic Alliance for its Al-Bashir court order, saying: “Now that you’ve asked your question, then what?” This was a sign that Malema realises that repeatedly asking the same question has no political or tactical mileage. It was thus no surprise when Malema’s own question ended with him promising to “meet in court”.

The EFF front benches showed their disregard for women earlier in the day when one of their own backbenchers, Natasha Louw, rose to allege that Freedom Front Plus elder Pieter Groenewald had verbally abused her. After an exchange, Louw invited Groenewald to a physical fight. No male EFF member got up to defend her or even enquire what the matter was and whether their member was safe. One would suppose ‘mistress’ Louw can handle karate grandmaster Groenewald.

But the day was most marred by Ndlozi’s referring to the speaker and minister as mistresses, an insult to all mothers. Ndlozi ought to grow up and accord the head of the institution the respect she deserves. As one of the youngest members he ought to show a modicum of maturity when inside the House and show respect for women – he owes this to the thousands of red-beret-wearing young men who look up to him and are watching on TV.

We are raised as Africans to truly show respect for our elders, including women of all ages. This new culture developing inside Parliament of late is worrisome. We are also raised to respect people in general irrespective of their social strata. The western adage ‘respect is earned’ cannot be found in the Bantu people; we are bred to respect strangers before we know who they are, to respect the village and the poorest family, respect is given and not worked for. We are raised to treat people the way we would want to be treated. Ubuntu. Africans are raised better.

A friend advised me to keep away from social media today because of this column as the response will be personal and ugly. Well, let’s consider it my contribution to women’s month. DM


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