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Parliament Diary: SONA draws near, Speaker pretends not to hear

Date Released: Wed, 11 February 2015 16:00 +0200

For many South Africans, the response by now to the endless State of the Nation Address predictions, speculation and will-they-won’t-they tango is probably something along the lines of: Can we just get on with it? Nonetheless, it would be absurd to pretend that when people talk about Thursday’s SONA, they are talking about anything other than the possibility of EFF disruption. Absurd, that is, unless you’re Parliament’s presiding officers – who, in a media briefing on Tuesday, seemed again determined to pretend as much as possible that the EFF threat didn’t exist.

Unless you believe that Ray McCauley is on the verge of brokering a deal between the EFF and the ANC, it seems overwhelmingly probable that President Jacob Zuma’s speech will be interrupted by the EFF on Thursday. You’d be foolish to put your money on anything else at this stage.

On Sunday, leader Julius Malema told residents of Mohlakeng: “When the number one tsotsi, dressed in a suit and tie, stands up to speak we will not even wait for him to clear his throat. We will ask him where is the money.”

Malema wasn’t speaking to journalists. He was addressing what was described as a “highly charged meeting” of Mohlakeng residents, and he was promising them that the EFF would take their grievances to the State of the Nation Address.

On Tuesday, Malema again confirmed to eNCA in an interview that the EFF intends to use Zuma’s presence in the National Assembly on Thursday as an opportunity to ask him to repay the public funds spent on Nkandla.

“Will he use an e-wallet, will he use the Shoprite facility or will he pay cash?” Malema said. “And after saying that he must then tender his resignation. And after saying that, it will be the best State of the Nation ever delivered by him.”

The SONA countdown clock on the EFF website continues to tick down the minutes till this all becomes a reality.

At this stage, it seems naïve to conclude this is mere bluster. The Fighters have made so many public statements of commitment to pursuing their stated course of action at this stage that a last-minute decision not to interrupt Zuma’s address could leave them looking quite silly.

And yet Parliament’s presiding officers continue to insist – in public, at least – that they don’t expect anything remotely untoward to happen in the National Assembly on Thursday.

“We do not expect [MPs] to ask questions,” deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli told journalists on Tuesday. “They have been informed in their induction, and subsequently in the practice that occurred, about what happens at SONA. So that is not what we expect, and we hope that is how things will turn out.”

And what if they don’t turn out like that?

“The Speaker has authority to maintain order in the House,” Tsenoli said.

Speaker Baleka Mbete said that if such a situation came to pass, “We will have to come to terms with it as it happens and we will have to apply the rules, the conventions, and the protocols”.

What does that mean?

The rules of Parliament do not provide the right for MPs to ask questions of the President when he delivers his State of the Nation Address, but they do provide the right for MPs to raise points of order, as Pierre de Vos has clarified.

What Mbete seems to have hinted in the past is that she would be relying on “convention” to shut down any utterances directed at the president: the simple fact that such a thing has never happened before. De Vos concludes, however, that this would be in conflict with the Rule of Law.

A point of order, which MPs are technically not prohibited to raise during the president’s address, is supposed to be a point relating to a procedural mistake. On the South African Parliament’s website, it is defined as: “A question by a member to the Chair as to whether proceedings in a meeting are in accordance with the rules or practice”.

It’s unclear how the EFF would be able to weave Nkandla into this strict format, but they will almost certainly be told to sit down and keep quiet by Speaker Mbete. If they refuse to obey her, what then?

Journalists repeatedly asked during Tuesday’s briefing for a yes/no answer to the question of whether public order police would be stationed near the National Assembly on Thursday in order to enter and remove MPs if called – as happened last November, and caused widespread consternation.

Deputy Speaker Tsenoli passed the buck on this question to Parliament’s head of security, Zelda Holtzman.

“When it comes to police deployment, it is the police who decide, operationally,” Holtzman said. “Police deployment is a prerogative of the police.”

This sounds both unlikely and sinister: so police would decide off their own bat when to enter the House? Parliamentary rules are clear that it is the Speaker who has ultimate authority over the National Assembly. The 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislature Act specifies that security officials may enter the House “only with the permission and under the authority of the Speaker or the Chairperson”,unless “there is immediate danger to the life or safety of any person or damage to any property”.

National Council of Provinces chair Thandi Modise said flatly: “I cannot say yes or no, the public order police will be in Parliament.”

She did, however, seek to deny reports that Parliament had been bulking up their security gear.

“We have been accused of buying bullet proof vests and some such nonsense; we have not,” Modise said, while acknowledging that Parliamentary staff did receive additional security training from time to time. “Is it geared towards, as the media is saying, protecting one man on the 12th of February? Categorically we say No!”

If EFF MPs are ordered to leave the National Assembly on Thursday and refuse to, hopefully there is a plan in place to resolve things in a non-violent manner. Presumably Parliament’s lawyers have been consulted. But it appears that the rest of us won’t be made privy to such a plan until the “hypothetical” becomes reality.

For the rest of it, the presiding officers want you to know that the event will feature a female praise singer for the first time, who will perform in SePedi. Some postgraduate students have been invited, as have representatives from different religious bodies.

The DA will not be attending the post-SONA dinner, because the party says it’s a waste of money. The presiding officers were particularly piqued about this on Tuesday, with Tsenoli essentially suggesting that the DA should #PayBackTheMoney for all the food that will now go to waste. He also suggested that it was a snub to traditional African hospitality.

“Parties who aren’t coming to the post-SONA dinner should have told us last year,” Tsenoli said, adding that they “knew about it all along”.

The DA has refuted this, with Chief Whip John Steenhuisen saying that they were only made aware of the post-SONA reception last Thursday, and that they immediately decided not to attend.

“These receptions, as well their costs, the increased level of security and possible presence of Public Order Police at this year’s SONA, was raised and evaded at last week’s Chief Whips’ Forum – which eventually descended into an acrimonious battle for clarity from the Speaker and Secretary’s offices who seem determined to wine and dine at the expense of the taxpayer,” Steenhuisen said in a statement.

It’s encouraging to hear how well everyone’s getting along before the big day. 

By Rebecca Davis

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: Soldiers participate in a rehearsal ahead of the State of the Nation Address by President Jacob Zuma in Cape Town, Tuesday, 10 February 2015. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA

Source:Daily Maverick