Parliament diary: Post-SONA debate has plenty of fire, zero fisticuffsDate Released: Wed, 18 February 2015 13:00 +0200
After a fairly bizarre start to the day – in the form of a press briefing given by Parliament’s presiding officers which raised more questions than it answered – the first half of the post-SONA debate went off reasonably successfully. Which is to say: no parties walked out, nobody got ejected from the House, nobody got roughed up by security, and the cellphone signal flowed smoothly. By Parliament’s recent standards, it was a triumph of civility.
Speaker Baleka Mbete was not in the House for the first day of the post-SONA debate. Could that be one of the reasons why proceedings went off relatively smoothly?
At a press briefing given by Parliament’s presiding officers on Tuesday morning, Mbete revealed a willingness to pass the buck to her fellow officers, and to set fairly obvious double standards.
After Mbete had waxed lyrical about the need for “honourable behaviour” and respect for fellow MPs, one of the questions journalists most wanted to see answered was how she squared this with her own comments at a public event this weekend describing EFF leader Julius Malema as a “cockroach”. But this matter was brushed away on the grounds that it referred to statements made outside Parliament, and hence was not relevant to business within Parliament.
Yet Mbete herself repeatedly referred to comments made by the EFF outside Parliament. “One EFF member has proudly boasted in a radio interview that they proudly beat up security,” she said. “Another member has reportedly even threatened to bring weapons into the chamber.”
Mbete seemed to consider these comments fair game for condemnation, despite the fact that they too were made outside Parliament. Yet attempts to see Mbete censured for her “cockroach” comment, both within the press briefing and at the post-SONA debate, came to naught.
“We are aware there is an insect matter,” said acting Speaker Thandi Modise, when the business of the House was convened and the issue was immediately raised by the EFF. “That matter does not belong to the joint sitting.” The most Modise said that she could do was to “convey the sentiments of the House” to Mbete.
Back in the press briefing, officers staunchly defended the decision to remove all EFF MPs from the House last week, rather than merely the three – Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi – who had been ordered by name to leave.
“The issue of names being mentioned or not becomes irrelevant when they were all on their feet,” Mbete said.
They also dismissed concerns about the fact that police entering the House were dressed in white shirts and black trousers, without any badges evident. “How [police] dress is their operational business,” Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said.
The officers initially denied any involvement at all with the scrambling of cellphone signals to the House during SONA, though it was later conceded that they were made aware of it on Wednesday, a day before the event, and that its purpose was to protect the President. They stressed that Parliament itself does not “own any device that scrambles communication”, and also that “the media was never a target”.
Asked repeatedly who was responsible for the scrambling of the signal, if not Parliament, Mbete would only say that it was a “department of state” which would be addressing the media in due course.
The briefing was characterised by frustration on both sides. On the part of the presiding officers, that frustration seemed to stem from a perception that the media could not see that disruptions to the business of Parliament, a la EFF, were in themselves a Constitutional threat.
On the part of the media, frustration stemmed from the fact that journalists had sat through two pre-SONA briefings where we were informed unequivocally that there were “no extraordinary measures” being put into place, security-wise, for SONA – a claim which was subsequently proved untrue.
“At our level we are not involved in operational issues,” Thandi Modise insisted – which raised further concerns about the level of control Parliament’s presiding officers actually exert over the institution.
Yet despite this unpromising start to the day, the post-SONA debate held in the House on Tuesday afternoon took place in a markedly less fraught atmosphere than that of the SONA itself, notwithstanding the often polarizing presence of President Jacob Zuma.
It was clear that Thandi Modise, who opened the sitting, and subsequent acting Speakers, were prepared to adopt a more conciliatory attitude to opposition MPs than Mbete in order to calm the waters.
Malema was in a relatively cooperative mood, too. He opened his address for the EFF with an immediate reference to Nkandla, but then unexpectedly shelved it: “This is a question for another day,” he said. “Today I’m not here to deal with that.” He proceeded to critique the ANC on points of policy – land, banking, international affairs – rather than dwelling on the events of last week.
ANC MPs, meanwhile, appeared to have been instructed to allow Malema to finish his statements without interruption. Even Malema’s reference to President Zuma as a “hooligan”, which would ordinarily have prompted a vociferous objection, passed without comment.
This is not to say that the session lacked its usual fire, or the more puerile exchanges which have come to typify parliamentary discourse. There were plenty of both. Following DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s barnstorming take-down of President Zuma as a “broken man”, there was also plenty of praise-singing from ANC MPs, and at times it was hard to detect where exactly the “debate” element was of the post-SONA debate.
But amidst the usual bickering and point-scoring, some substantive policy points were made. The first speaker for the ANC, Arts & Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, gave a firm indication that his portfolio would be pursuing the “nation-building” mandate he stressed when he first took on the ministry. In addition to the South African flags being distributed to schools, Mthethwa said that schools should carry the flag of the African Union too, and proposed that pupils should recite the preamble of the Constitution.
ANC Deputy Chief Whip Doris Dlakude had been tasked with bigging-up South Africa’s foreign policy, which she proceeded to do in fairly extravagant form, paying tribute to South Africa’s heroic stature in the international arena. Dlakude affirmed the government’s policy of not allowing foreigners to own land in South Africa, though once again failed to elaborate on what exactly “land” means in this context.
Dlakude expressed government support for the AU and for BRICS, and announced that South Africa would not rest until the people of Palestine have “gained absolute liberation from Israeli domination”. She also said that the South African government would play a leading role in reviving the Nigerian “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign.
Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Pravin Gordhan spoke of the need to “radically transform” the operations of local government and stressed that there would be no reluctance to intervene in the affairs of ailing municipalities. Gordhan said that the department was investigating the re-zoning of boundaries of a number of municipalities.
Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Mzwandile Masina brought some EFF-lite discourse into the House, saying that the “second phase of transition” would bring with it “radical socio-economic transformation” and “a fundamental break with the ownership patterns of the past”, with land reform a top priority.
The ANC’s chosen sweeper for the debate was Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, who paid tribute to South Africa’s growing quantities of foreign direct investment despite the pessimism of analysts. Patel’s focus was on the importance of infrastructure development – which he described as a “game-changer” - to the economy and job creation. New bus systems are changing South African cities, he said; he also cited examples of new hydro-electricity and solar power schemes.
Interspersed with the contributions of ANC members were, of course, the markedly less positive assessments of opposition MPs. DA Shadow Police Minister Zak Mbhele spoke of the lack of public faith in the police, and the glut of recent incidents of police brutality. DA MP Phumzile van Damme called for public dialogues to be initiated about racism.
The UDM’s Bantu Holomisa claimed, in contrast to Patel, that investor confidence in South Africa was diminishing. The DA’s Geordin Hill-Lewis said that the ANC was presiding over a tanking economy and a shrinking job market – though the ANC had their revenge at the debate’s conclusion when Patel brought out statistics which he said proved that the DA had also presided over growing unemployment in the Western Cape.
The debate resumes at 2pm on Wednesday.
Best line of the debate:
DA’s Mmusi Maimane to President Jacob Zuma: “You laughed while the people of South Africa cried for their beloved country.”
IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in response to laughter from skeptical MPs about his re-writing of history to cast himself in a more heroic role: “You can laugh until the Devil laughs his lungs out in Hell.”
Most cutting one-liner:
DA’s John Steenhuisen: “The last time the SACP had a real red among them, it was Johnnie Walker Red.”
From the ANC’s Thandi Mahambehlala to Mmusi Maimane: “What is it you protect, Honourable Maimane – the Constitution, or white privilege?”
DA’s Maimane: “What is holding us back from fulfilling Mandela’s vision?”
By Rebecca Davis
Source: Daily Maverick
Photo: A picture made with a fish-eye lens shows South African workers preparing a podium behind a sculpture of former President Nelson Mandela outside the National Assembly building, Cape Town, South Africa, 10 February 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA