Friday, 14 November 2014

Parliament in crisis - the back story

Yesterday's debacle in Parliament left many people licking their wounds, both literally and figuratively, but four in particular will need more than band aid to repair the damage done to their reputations - Speaker Baleka Mbete, ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani, Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu and House Chair Cedric Frolick. They must be reflecting on what came over them during those few hours of madness and mayhem which will go down in the annals as one of the darkest moments in our new democracy. 

Each in their own way contributed to the loss of control and decorum in this venerable institution, which has left the country wondering if it - and they - can ever recover. But hanging over them from a distance was the éminence grise of Jacob Zuma, who more than anyone is responsible for the dire state of our body politic and set in motion the ugly events that scarred the nobility of Parliament. It is he, the country's President, who through his contempt for the constitution and the rule of law, has given licence to the general state of lawlessness that has permeated South Africa and so many of its citizens, including now even some lawmakers themselves.

The sitting began ominously, with the Speaker attempting to limit the time given to notices of motion and motions without notice to 45 minutes. Normally there is no time limit, but she spuriously used rule 2 of the rules governing the House allowing the Speaker to change the programme due to unforeseen circumstances. It was spurious because the Chief Whips Forum and Programme Committee that morning had discussed and agreed the programme so there was nothing unforeseen about it.

There followed nearly an hour of heated points of order from DA, EFF and other opposition party whips and Members, pointing out the Speaker was unilaterally changing the rules which she was not entitled to do. In the main, ANC MPs sat silently as the Speaker made a mockery of her office, protecting her party rather than upholding the rules of the House. But there were stirrings among some of the more belligerent ANC members, among whom were its Chief Whip and Minister Zulu, arms flaying the air with dismissive arrogance.

After ordering DA Deputy Chief Whip Mike Waters to leave the house and DA Parliamentary Leader Mmusi Maimane to sit down during the protestations, which both refused to do, her authority rapidly bled away. Opposition parties stood firm and the points of order kept coming. MPs chanted "You must go! You must go!" and Mbete appeared flustered and shrunken in her high chair, the discredited Red Queen of Parliament.

The dangerous deadlock was only broken when the ANC Chief Whip seconded a motion brought by IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa that the House let the programme continue as agreed. Coming from a Member of such high standing within the ANC, Mbete was faced with a dilemma. Should she risk confronting her senior colleague and in so doing humiliate him and risk the sitting further descending into chaos, or back down, perform her duties correctly and be humiliated herself? She wisely chose the latter course but by then her credibility was shot.

By at first not speaking out against Mbete's attempt to manipulate the rules, Sizani revealed his collusion with Mbete's plan. By later wielding the executioner's axe (thanks John) he decapitated Mbete but left his own authority severely weakened.

Once the motions got under way it was Minister Zulu's turn to lose her head, this time by her own making. After repeatedly taunting EFF MP Godrich Gardee she left the House with intent to settle the score and was seen trading blows in the passageway, fellow MPs preventing an all-out brawl. On returning she denied her actions and was forced into a humiliating apology when DA MP Geordin Hill-Lewis announced to the House the scene had been filmed and published on YouTube.

The behaviour of these three was bad enough, but what followed shocked us to the core.

The debate on the Nkandla ad hoc committee report was heated, and we all expected this to be the climax to the day's sitting. It was passed after the DA called for a division and the Deputy Speaker then said we would break for 45 minutes for a cool off and refreshments. When we all shuffled back in Cedric Frolick had assumed the Chair and announced that consideration of the 38 Budget Review and Recommendation Reports would be held over until the following week.

This left as the last order of business the debate on the treaty on the Grand Inga Hydropower project between South Africa and the DRC. We were thus spared the prospect of perhaps another four hours' sitting (by then it was well past 9:30 pm and we'd been at it since 2). One would have thought all MPs would have assented to this decision, but ANC MPs would have nothing to do with it, even after their Chief Whip supported it. They howled and screamed and poor Stone Sizani had to be rescued by the Chair. More humiliation and embarrassment for Sizani as his Members openly defied him.

When our energy spokesman Lance Greyling finished his (excellent) speech I escaped to my office to collect my bag so I could make a quick get away when the House rose. On returning I was alarmed to see riot police dressed in their protective gear moving in force into the House. I managed to squeeze through to take my seat next to Belinda Bozzoli and Glynnis Breytenbach, who told me what had happened.

An EFF MP had accused Jacob Zuma in her speech of being a liar and a thief and refused Frolick's order to leave the House. She stood her ground long enough for someone - and exactly who remains shrouded in mystery but the bets are on it was Frolick - to call in the police. All hell broke loose. Some of our more muscular MPs, including Gordon MacKay, Dean Macpherson (something about their Scottish descent?) and Tim Brauteseth, formed a phalanx determined to push out the police as they tried to remove the offending EFF MP - a woman, as it happens. Another woman MP, our own Terri Stander, was up-ended by the police while others were assaulted as pandemonium broke out. MPs, jackets off and faces grim, formed a wall strong enough to assert their power over the weakened police resolve. This lasted a good ten minutes, until the House was free of intruders and the Chief Whips and Mmusi Maimane retreated with Frolick to decide what do do.

They returned and Frolick immediately called Mmusi to speak, which he did with firmness and calm. The House would adjourn, he said, amidst more protests from ANC MPs and relief amongst our members. Frolick's adjournment was a mere formality. The mantle of leadership had passed to the shoulders of the DA Parliamentary Leader. The ANC was vanquished, their members helpless.

From this dismal spectacle our Parliamentary leadership shone out as the only ones in control of their senses and emotions. From James Selfe's impassioned closing speech in the Nkandla report debate, to Mmusi's steadfast insistence that the House's independence from police force was sacrosanct, to John Steenhuisen and Mike Waters' masterful handling of the entire day's proceedings, we showed the Democratic Alliance's traditions and experience were intact and had won the day.

By contrast our combatants  - that is what they had become - on the other side of the House displayed venal subservience to their compromised leadership, which led to the proceedings descending into farce and terrorising tactics to cower dissent.

Why did it come to this? Because if we have a Parliament, whose job is to oversee the executive, and the executive is unaccountable, our options become very limited and we will come to blows. What started out in 1994 as a noble and transparent institution, whose first Speaker Frene Ginwala opened its doors to the light and fresh air of open debate, has now become the tarnished plaything of a self-serving cleptocracy.

The constitution has been subverted by Jacob Zuma and the network of sycophants he has assembled around him. The entire edifice of government is propping up a corrupt and discredited absentee leader.

Until he is called to account this charade called Parliamentary democracy will continue. The DA must, and will, continue to fight for justice until justice is done and seen to be done, through an institution whose proper functioning is essential to our survival as a democracy worthy of the name.

(See Rebecca Davis' account in The Daily Maverick for a good summary of the day's events.)


  1. What a wonderfully clear description!

  2. A successful democracy in Africa is a cause worth fighting for, and we are fortunate to have some sane heads still engaged in the battle.
    Let's hope this event will accelerate the division in the now "ruling ( not serving ) party" between those who seek to build a properly functioning and democratic South Africa from those who are only interested in self enrichment.

  3. Outstanding Toby!

    Tony Maher