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No more Zooming in from ‘far-flung places’ as the House adjourns


Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

Some official somewhere, perhaps in a fit of retro sentimentality to childhood days of labelling schoolbooks, thought spelling out what’s what on Parliament’s actual buildings’ pediments was necessary.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Letters spelling out “National Assembly” have appeared on the gable above the pillars of the people’s House. It’s ludicrous. The National Assembly doesn’t need letters to spell out what it is.

That building is central to the ceremonial, like the president pausing for the national anthem before the State of the Nation Address – the next is scheduled for 11 February 2021 – and to demonstrations regularly held at the gates of Parliament.

One reason Madiba’s bust was placed in front of the National Assembly in 2014 was precisely because that building is well-known and high-profile – and the bust, like the National Assembly entrance, is within plain view from the street.

Mind you, it’s the large “Welcome to Parliament” sign with the parliamentary logo that seems to be the selfie site of choice for most visitors. Go figure!

Some official somewhere, perhaps in a fit of retro sentimentality to childhood days of labelling schoolbooks, thought spelling out what’s what on Parliament’s actual buildings’ pediments was necessary.

But one consequence of plakking on letters to spell out N-a-t-i-o-n-a-l A-s-s-e-m-b-l-y is that when a lawmaker appears on television, say in a debate or committee rerun on DStv Channel 408, it’s now against a fake background. Because the officially-agreed-to National Assembly background lawmakers use on virtual platforms doesn’t feature those letters. The easiest and best way to keep the integrity of the National Assembly would be to remove those labelling letters.

But that National Assembly, despite Covid-19 restrictions – Saturday is Lockdown Day 261 – held 1,000 committee meetings and 46 sittings.

That’s notwithstanding the “Unmute yourself, Honourable” or the instruction for people to mute in order to cut out anything from private conversations and playing children to clunking teaspoons.

But other unforeseen eventualities have arisen.

When the Adjustments Appropriation Bill of the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement goes through the House, legislators get to ask ministers questions.

This time round, for the 2020 Second Adjustments Appropriation Bill, neither Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma nor her deputies were available to answer IFP and ANC queries.

Deputy President David “DD” Mabuza, who is also the leader of government business or liaison between the executive and Parliament, was not in the benches, but his parliamentary counsellor ANC MP Hope Papo was. And he was not pleased.

“The majority of ministers have confirmed. We can give you the list of confirmation… It’s very surprising suddenly ministers are not on the platform. We cannot run around like this.”

The word must have got out because suddenly Parks Tau, wrapping up as Deputy Cooperative Governance Minister before heading off to Gauteng as economic development MEC, came online. Could the question be repeated, he asked, admitting he’d come from “the ablution facilities”.

Also needing repeat questions was Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu because the connection from a “far-flung place” was atrocious. Bad connectivity was also the reason for requesting to be allowed to keep the video off. “Your video is off, Minister,” the presiding officer Cedric Frolick told her.

When it was Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s turn, the camera got her in the back of a vehicle, instructing the driver to “pull off” before smoothly moving on to answers. But both the defence minister and her deputy were incapacitated, it emerged during the session.

With so many ministers and deputies unavailable, the ANC in Parliament had its physical and virtual benches depleted – only 191 of its 230 MPs were present. Ten opposition votes were needed. In the end 17 came through for the governing ANC, supported by, among others, the IFP, Cope, the AIC, GOOD and Al Jama-Ah for the Bill to pass 208 for, 108 against.

“We are finished with you. We won,” came the shout from the ANC benches in the House. But it may not be so on another occasion.

2021 is set to be a cracker. But for now, as the presiding officers have said: “The House is adjourned”. DM168

This analysis is by Marianne Merten who has been writing on parliament for Daily Maverick since 2016.

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