Parliament’s torrid week continues. After Tuesday’s gamesmanship - which saw ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani pull a switcheroo on opposition parties to ensure they walked out before a vote of no confidence was due in Speaker Baleka Mbete – Wednesday brought little calm to the National Assembly. With a rare opportunity to put questions to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on offer, the biggest thing on the opposition’s mind was Marikana. By REBECCA DAVIS.
If there is a moment that captures the spirit of the fifth parliament so far, perhaps it came during Wednesday’s National Assembly sitting, when the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu showed the Deputy President of South Africa his middle finger.
We’ve been building up to this, after all. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’ve been sliding downhill to this. On Tuesday, ANC MP Bertha Mabe left the podium muttering “Bastards!” Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula called the EFF a bunch of “losers”. And DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen made a joke about Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s bum.
Shivambu’s obscene gesture, then, is merely the culmination of an increasingly chaotic National Assembly environment. How soon before things descend into actual fisticuffs? (It wouldn’t be the first time, but it would be only the second: the sole occasion on which punches have been thrown in the democratic National Assembly was in 1998, when the NP’s Manie Schoeman went for the ANC’s Johnny de Lange.)
The chance to stick it to Cyril Ramaphosa was always going to be jubilantly exploited by the EFF in particular, who have taken every opportunity to denounce Ramaphosa as a sell-out in bed with white monopoly capital. And despite the fact that the ANC on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to show support to Speaker Baleka Mbete, it’s unlikely that she didn’t go into Wednesday’s session feeling her position to be somewhat more tenuous after an entire debate devoted to her suitability to serve in her role.
Whoever runs Parliament’s social media strategy had kindly taken it upon themselves to give Mbete a helping hand on Wednesday, launching an ill-fated #KnowYourSpeaker campaign on Twitter. Parliament’s official Twitter account sought to impart nuggets of information about Mbete’s history – “National Assembly Speaker Ms Baleka Mbete used to teach Afrikaans, IsiZulu, English and History at a school in Durban” – and her lifestyle.
“A typical day in the life of National Assembly Speaker,” ran one tweet. “Ms Mbete starts work from 6am and only goes to bed after midnight.” The tweets ended by assuring the people of South Africa that Mbete is “passionate about her job”.
It seems increasingly hard to believe that Mbete doesn’t prepare for each plenary session by popping a handful of tranquillisers, but good to know.
Ramaphosa himself started the plenary in characteristically cool and calm style, joking in response to an early question: “I will be able to come back to you in a couple of years’ time when I come back to answer questions again.” He must have had an inkling of what was to come later: after all, a question from the EFF’s Julius Malema was already on the order paper for the afternoon, with a prepared response from Ramaphosa.
But things kicked off in a reasonably sedate fashion: questions to Ramaphosa about youth awareness of HIV, and the issue of performance agreements for Ministers. Ramaphosa was in smooth mode here as President Zuma’s loyal second-in-command, repeatedly deferring to the judgment of the president. The president “cannot be faulted” on failing to take action on under-performing ministers in the past, Ramaphosa said. If the time should come that a minister is found to have performed poorly, “[t]he president, let us trust him, will take the right decision”.
The president, Ramaphosa added, at this stage sounding more like his imbongi than his deputy, “is very strong and firm on the question of accountability”.
It was clear that this would not be an occasion on which Ramaphosa would present himself, even obliquely, as a possible aspirant to the throne.
It was probably to Ramaphosa’s advantage that the extremely thick register which documents MP’s financial interests was only released as the plenary session was starting. More grist to the EFF’s mill, surely, to have it confirmed that Ramaphosa is far and away Parliament’s richest member. Under his belt Ramaphosa has over R70 million in company shares, with financial interests in game farms, sports cars and McDonald’s – and that’s only the stuff that’s made public. He also owns 30 townhouses in Johannesburg, and two flats in Cape Town.
Malema didn’t need the extra fuel. His original question was how Ramaphosa “reconcile[d] his testimony before the Farlam Commission of Inquiry” with “any of the government’s interventions up to now to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the Marikana tragedy”.
Ramaphosa replied that there was “no correlation”, which sounded strangely candid, and then proceeded to list a number of government initiatives undertaken to improve social conditions for mineworkers.
Malema wasn’t having any of it. First of all, he wanted to express his disapproval with the fact that his question had been re-phrased to make mention of the “Marikana tragedy”, which appears to be the government’s preferred term for the events which saw 34 miners shot dead. Malema said he had called it a “massacre”, not a “tragedy”.
And then he really put the boot in. “Why is the deputy president not accepting that you are responsible for the death of 34 mineworkers who died?” he asked. “You killed them because you were driven by profit and the interest to defend your shares as an economic security guard in the economy of South Africa.”
He said that Ramaphosa should stop saying that there was a need for collective responsibility about Marikana. “You are the one who wrote emails,” Malema charged. “Sitting there, your hands have got blood of innocent people who died in Marikana.”
Speaker Mbete demanded that Malema withdraw the suggestion that Ramaphosa had bloodied hands. The scene was already highly reminiscent of the last Marikana set-to in the National Assembly, when the EFF accused NCOP Chair Thandi Modise of being responsible for the death of the Marikana miners, and precisely the same scenes followed.
Malema refused to withdraw. Floyd Shivambu leapt to his feet to query Mbete’s demand that Malema should withdraw the statement. “Which rule is preventing us to say that Cyril is a murderer?” Shivambu demanded. “He is a murderer of workers at Marikana and it’s a fact!”
Mbete said that if they would not withdraw their “unparliamentary” remarks, they should leave the House. And so they did, for the second day in a row, with EFF MPs following their leaders out. It was in the general skirmish of departure that Shivambu flipped the bird at Ramaphosa: a gesture which did not go unnoticed by the ANC, but which Mbete said it was too late to deal with because Shivambu had already left the building.
Ramaphosa had sat through this all looking mildly pained, but without any particularly demonstrative emotions visible. His ordeal wasn’t quite over, however. The UDM’s Bantu Holomisa was ready with a clearly loaded question about whether mining only benefited a few individuals who profited from BEE practices, or the wider social context. Ramaphosa conceded that the Mining Charter needed to be implemented more comprehensively.
In response to another question about how government intended to deal with the “psychological scars” of Marikana, Ramaphosa described Marikana as “clearly a very sad moment in the history of our country”, and then said…well, not much.
“The first thing obviously we have to do is heal the wounds, heal the wounds that were caused by the tragedy of Marikana, and to move on in a way where we…in a practical way heal those wounds, and look after those who were victims, in a number of ways, and the government has already started doing that,” he said.
Heal the wounds: Got It.
But it was actually the DA’s Mmusi Maimane who was armed with the most pointed question of the day. Brandishing the email written by Ramaphosa before the massacre, in which he said the strike had gone “way beyond a labour dispute”, and must be treated as “criminal”, with “concomitant action”, Maimane asked Ramaphosa to concede that he personally had inflamed the situation.
And beyond that: if the Farlam Commission found that Ramaphosa had any contributory role in events leading up to the massacre, would he resign as deputy president?
Here, for the first time, the DP looked genuinely stirred. “I think it would be wrong to begin here to substantively address issues which are being dealt with at that Commission,” he said. He had volunteered to address the commission without being subpoenaed because “I wanted to tell the truth”.
“If I were to answer [Maimane’s question] it would be tantamount to contempt for that other institution,” Ramaphosa said, and added with the finger-wagging air of an elder politician, “and you should know that as leader of the opposition.”
The DA’s protests that Ramaphosa should be made to answer the direct question fell upon deaf ears, which is to say the ears of Baleka Mbete. “Please let us not undermine our democracy”, she pleaded, while the DA yet again suggested that she had taken a call from Luthuli House to protect the executive.
Same old, same fricken old.
For the second time in two days, however, the DA and the EFF were on the same rhetorical page, even if the DA approached the Marikana matter with more genteel language and stayed put in their seats for the duration of the session.
But the EFF clearly wants it known exactly which party “owns” the Marikana issue in this Parliament. Last month an EFF MP tried to sneak in a question to Ramaphosa about Marikana while he was discussing tax evasion in the National Council of Provinces, and was smacked down by chair Modise. This time they got their way. And as always with the EFF, the act of asking the question is what matters; not the answer. DM
Article by: Rebecca Davis
Article Source: The Daily Maverick