Q&A: John Steenhuisen on chaos in Parliament

2015-02-22 06:00

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Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip John Steenhuisen was caught in the middle of the drama that unfolded over the state of the nation address. Janet Heard spoke to him

How did you feel about events on February 12?

It was a sense of disbelief when I was told they had blocked the signal about an hour before the sitting began. I then saw Masibulele Xaso, National Assembly secretary, and told him about the jamming. I went upstairs into the media bay and saw where the device was, in the cubicle. We got photos.

Are you familiar with these devices?

I had seen them on the internet. You only see them in the movies, you never expect them to be used in the Parliament of South Africa. I spoke to the technicians, then ANC chief whip [Stone Sizani], who sat in stony silence, refusing to engage.

Then deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude came over, said it was an operational issue, but would look into it.

This means that a whole hour before, key stakeholders had been alerted and it could have been fixed. I didn’t want to disrupt the Sona, but it could not proceed when it had been turned into a police state. So I had to get up on a point of order to get the signal unjammed.

Do you buy the explanation that the jamming was a “technical error”?

It was definitely planned by state security with parliamentary presiding officers. It was a naive, paranoid response to indications that the president was going to be asked a question in the National Assembly. How that escalated to being a threat to state security is the bigger question.

What about other issues, i.e. police in white shirts?

The fact is that political parties were left out of the planning for the Sona. The first time we received a presentation, which turned out to be a pack of lies, was on Wednesday [the week] before, at the chief whips’ forum. We weren’t briefed about the public order policing unit, we were kept in the dark.

But the SAPS has always been at Parliament?

Only on the perimeter. There has been a huge militarisation on the precinct over the past six months.

The ANC points out that the EFF is disruptive and out of order?

The ANC has a point, the politics of disruption don’t do anything to enhance Parliament. But its response is not commensurate to the threats. Some members of the EFF were out of order on Thursday.

But there is no justification to send in the SAPS with firearms to remove the entire party or to kick a woman in the face so she leaves the chamber bleeding.

Also, the ANC likes to say the genesis is the EFF’s arrival, but it is Jacob Zuma’s refusal to answer questions. He is the biggest rule-breaker, yet accuses others of breaking the rules.

Has the discourse changed in Parliament?

With the EFF, the grudge is personal – the EFF was birthed out of the ANC, so you see antagonisms between people like Thandi Modise and Julius Malema and other personalities. With me it is about rules and principles. ANC conflict has spilt over into Parliament.

Is the relationship between the DA and EFF an “unholy alliance”?

There is no alliance. You couldn’t find two parties more diametrically opposed when it comes to policies – i.e. land, economy, BEE, job creation. But for the first time we – and other opposition parties – are finding common ground on issues of the day. These are upholding the Constitution, the oversight role of Parliament and holding the president and executive accountable.

How do you not get drowned out?

You need to get up and clearly and concisely articulate your point of view. It is hard, there is a lot of noise.

It got quite personal this week, with barbs against you about an affair, what is that about?

My private life is mine, it doesn’t affect my work. The truth of the matter is that I met somebody, fell deeply in love, that woman is now my wife.

Is Parliament broken and if so, can it be rebuilt?

Yes, but we can fix it. Out of chaos will come order. It requires cool heads, maturity on behalf of all political parties and ensuring internal mechanisms work properly. The chief whips’ forum is dysfunctional and agreements are not honoured.

The programming committee is ad hoc, a shambles. The Parliament oversight authority should meet on a monthly basis, not every quarter.

We should start a portfolio committee to oversee Parliament – which meets like every other committee on a weekly basis.

What about Speaker Baleka Mbete?

The only way – and the chances are growing thinner by the day – in which the Speaker could salvage respectability is if she relinquishes her chairmanship of the ANC and commits to ensuring all MPs are protected in Parliament. Like presiding officers Thoko Didiza and Cedric Frolick, who give space to opposition MPs.

Is the meltdown restricted to the National Assembly?

The engine rooms are committees and they function well with a strong element of cross-party engagement and cooperation. There is not a single party who has a malicious intent for South Africa to do badly, though we differ on how we get there.

What is the state of the nation?

The nation is in a state. Key interventions need to be made to sort things out – the crippling energy crisis and joblessness. Our economy not growing as fast as our neighbours. You can’t say South Africa is a nation at work when 36% of the nation doesn’t work and state institutions are being destroyed.

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