Culture clash with guitars

2014-02-25 10:00

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Toilets had to be installed for the female MPs, Jennifer Ferguson wanted to sing her speech and Makhenkesi Stofile was not the only parliamentarian surprised to discover his job came with a salary, writes Gaye Davis of the confusion that reigned in the first democratic Parliament.

The first democratic Parliament convened on May 9 1994 brought new blood coursing through the hardened arteries of an institution long dominated by white men and stiff tradition.

With the ANC’s majority placing it in power, the question was how best to use it.

Parliament would become the powerhouse of the new government’s policy machine, but confusion reigned in those first days.

Rev Makhenkesi Arnold Stofile remembers the meeting convened by Thabo Mbeki to decide key positions. Frene Ginwala was elected Speaker. Her deputy, this being the Government of National Unity (GNU) would come from the National Party?–?Bhadra Ranchod.

“Stof”, as he was known by all, was elected chief whip.

“I got the shock of my life. I didn’t even know what this thing was,” he recalls.

He headed to the parliamentary library immediately after the meeting.

“I told them, ‘Look?–?I’ve just been elected chief whip by the ANC. I need a book to guide me.’”

Stofile’s job was to get government’s business through Parliament, a job that required regular meetings with Ginwala, the ANC whips and those of other parties, to manage draft legislation being processed by the committees.

But he soon found his role went beyond the formal job description.

The new guard of MPs was talented and diverse?–?a masala-mix of academics, lawyers and veterans of the liberation movement, returned exiles, seasoned United Democratic Front activists and ex-political prisoners. Some had multiple degrees; others had limited education but were astute and energetic community leaders.

Many had suffered trauma and torture at the hands of the apartheid regime: now they were going to sit across the debating chamber from their former oppressors and start dismantling the legal edifice that had propped it up.

Many new MPs had never earned a proper salary nor owned a car or a house. “They had no notion of taxes, of bonds and car loans,” says Stofile. “A lot of people ran into difficulties.

“I became a counsellor, a guide, a resource and information centre. I was like the village schoolmaster.”

The mood among the new guard was passionate, but their optimism was overlaid with fear?–?of the old guard still in charge and their own ignorance at the rules of this new game.

Among the old guard was Kasper Hahndiek, an expert on Parliament’s rules and procedures who had joined Parliament when BJ Vorster was in charge. Now retired, he became National Assembly secretary in 1997.

A journey into the unknown

Hahndiek worked closely with Ginwala, whose uncompromising work ethic and refusal to suffer fools earned her the nickname, “Madam Bossy”. In the House, Ginwala was often addressed as “Mr Speaker” by those who were used to a man in the presiding officer’s chair.

Ginwala wasn’t afraid of stepping on toes and involved herself in everything.

She defended this in an early (1996) interview: “I feel if you want to make radical changes you have to be involved. You cannot leave it to the old systems and old staff.”

Luckily, Ginwala and Hahndiek hit it off.

“She assessed me and found me trustworthy. I quickly developed an immense respect for her,” says Hahndiek.

Under Ginwala, the basis was laid for transforming the white enclave that acted as a giant rubber stamp for National Party policies into a Parliament for and of the people.

Says Hahndiek: “Personally, I was delighted that democracy had at last arrived. Parliament was not a simple institution. I realised I was in a position to make a difference and set to work to try and help as best I could.”

For Stofile and others grappling with the transition, Hahndiek became a trusted guide and adviser. His reward was seeing Parliament becoming integrated and shedding its starchy, pre-1994 correctness.

“People brought in their kids and dressed as they wanted to, rather than for a Sunday morning in the Dutch Reformed Church,” says Hahndiek.

“Members were more relaxed, less self-important. I’d be going to my car and hear someone shout my name?–?it would be the minister of labour. It was such a different climate.”

For most new MPs, it was a journey into the unknown.

Says Stofile: “Many of us?–?me included?–?did not know in 1994 that going to Parliament meant being there the whole year. We thought we could continue with our work.

“It was a big surprise when we learnt we were going to be paid?–?we expected we’d just get allowances for attending sittings. That’s when we realised, this thing is serious.”

Jennifer Ferguson, the singer-songwriter and poet, remembers the “enormous sense of occasion and fanfare?–?and complete unknowing”.

“I had to ask what being an MP entailed. ‘Can I have a job description?’ I asked. And there was none. We were part of a massive transformation from national liberation movement to government and we had to fake it till we made it,” says Ferguson.

Hannah Britton, an American associate professor of political science and women’s studies, recorded a black ANC MP’s unhappiness and confusion on her first day in the chamber.

“Here came these other people in the parties. And they were coming in here with motions and motions and one after the other. And the way we were quiet! We didn’t like this, but what does one do? How could we stop it? The air was tension. We all looked around, ‘What is this? What is happening?’” said the MP.

On leaving the chamber they vowed not to let it happen again.

“Because I saw them [MPs who’d been in the previous government] enjoying it. They had caught us. We didn’t know the rules of Parliament, the procedures and all that.”

When Ferguson put a Bertolt Brecht poem to music and wanted to play her guitar and sing it instead of making a speech.

Stofile blocked her. “I told him he reminded me of my old fascist, neo-Nazi headmaster?–?yet this was Stof.” Finding herself in a place in which she “couldn’t stand upright”, Ferguson later resigned as an MP and now lives in Sweden.

Stofile remembers: “She was not amused.”

He also recalls being confronted by an angry delegation of struggle matriarchs unhappy about who was to serve on the reconstruction and development programme’s oversight committee.

“Mama [Albertina] Sisulu, Sister Bernard Ncube, Mam’ Lydia Kompe, Adelaide Tambo came to my office and asked: ‘How dare you leave us out?’

“Mama Sisulu said: ‘You put Max [her son, the current National Assembly Speaker] there?–?what does he know about RDP?’

“These were experts. Lydia Kompe was a veteran land activist. I had to apologise, get some of the younger ones out.”

The first two years were taken up with crafting the final Constitution and erasing apartheid laws from the statute books.

The interim Constitution had come into effect on April 27 1994.

It created the 400-member National Assembly and the 90-member Senate (later replaced by the National Council of Provinces).

Both Houses sitting together made up the Constituent Assembly, which was responsible for drafting the final Constitution within two years.

Moving in the same direction

While training started almost immediately, MPs lacked resources: computers, research, administration and secretarial support.

People struggled with complex documents, challenging even for those for whom literacy was not an issue.

Marriages broke down under the strain of spouses spending months away from home in Cape Town.

Husbands who were not MPs sometimes could not cope with their wives’ new-found status and power.

Former MP Pregs Govender, now deputy chair of the Human Rights Commission, remembers the “hectic” workload and the additional burden carried by women still responsible for domestic arrangements and the well-being of their children.

In a speech in late 1998 Govender observed that “each woman MP?...?works hectically from meeting to meeting.

Each of us might require support in different ways at different times, whether it’s for a sick child, whether it’s for a family crisis, whatever.

But we don’t have that built into our institutions at all.”

Arguably, one of the defining struggles of the new Parliament was that of ANC women?–?present in their numbers thanks to the 30% quota?–?determined to bring gender issues to the front and centre.

The committee Govender chaired on the status and quality of life of women drove through ground-breaking legislation.

Separate taxation for men and women came in 1995, new laws on abortion, customary marriage and domestic violence followed.

Govender told an interviewer at the time: “We’ve made changes to the law in every area. It is a solid vindication of the quota system.”

The first Parliament was blessed with what Stofile calls “a group of good politicians?–?rooted in their ideologies, mature in their politics”.

Having a GNU “toned down differences over broad issues?–?we were moving in the same direction although sometimes there were differences and we stood our ground”.

After FW de Klerk led his party out of the GNU “an element of animosity developed”, says Stofile.

There was a famous punch-up involving ANC MP Johnny de Lange and NP MP Manie Schoeman in 1998.

But standing over them all was the country’s first president, Nelson Mandela, “We would remember him, his decency and his tolerance,” says Stofile.

The first Parliament was the engine room of ANC government policy.

Under Mbeki, that changed and the national legislature was no longer the epicentre.

A handful of the MPs who made up that first cohort remain, ANC veteran Andrew Mlangeni is among them.

Stofile, now SA ambassador to Germany, is concerned about the rapid turnover among MPs and with a largely new crew having to learn afresh every five years.

“We went to Parliament to represent our people,” he says.

“Today, people want to go to Parliament because they want to earn a salary.”

Making way for the new SA

Hot and Not trends in the new South African Parliament

.?Women became a significant force, thanks to the ANC’s 30% quota rule.

Early battles saw extra female toilets installed, lighter, healthier meals in the canteen and the air-conditioning adjusted to suit those not wearing suits

.?A women’s lobby succeeded in getting a crèche on the premises, as well as maternity and paternity leave for MPs.

Recesses were matched with school holidays

.?Committees were given greater oversight over government policy and the executive and were opened to the media and the public

.?The dress code for MPs was relaxed, with formal suits giving way to Cuban guayaberas and traditional dresses

. While many new MPs chose to deliver their speeches in English, not always with the best results, interpreters were employed and Hansard hired translators

.?Staff numbers swelled?–?from 370 in the previous dispensation it had more than doubled by 1996

.?Out went old symbols and works of art, including an oil painting of the last all-white, all-male Cabinet, to be replaced by new paintings, ­tapestries and regalia

.?Song?–?and sometimes dance?–?became a feature, as did praise singers

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