Zuma, Mbete ‘lead Parliament by example’

2015-02-25 12:45

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True to his magnanimous leadership trait, President Jacob Zuma commended the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota as some of the debaters who contributed valuably to the two-day debate on the state of the nation address in Parliament.

The president stressed that the strong views and harsh criticism they expressed pertaining to his speech were the kind of frank parliamentary engagement necessary to take this country forward.

The day before the president gave his reply to the MPs of both houses of Parliament, National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete – in her capacity as the national chairperson of the ANC – publicly apologised for her “cockroach” remarks directed at Malema.

The speaker’s apology not only demonstrated the humility, courage and exemplary leadership expected of a head of a legislative arm of the state, but was also in line with her consistent endeavour to promote civility and tolerance in parliamentary engagement.

In acknowledging Malema, the president elected to focus on the substance of his input instead of some unsavoury remarks that accompanied his contribution during the first day of the debate. Among his litany of insults, Malema had labelled the president a “hooligan”.

Mbete’s unconditional apology to the public and Malema in particular also chose to overlook the EFF leader’s well-documented dishonourable tongue and conduct.

These genuine gestures by both the president and speaker are significant in that they underscore the fundamental principles which we have consistently advocated pertaining to parliamentary multiparty engagement.

We have consistently asserted that for Parliament to live to its constitutional role of being the maker of progressive laws, a forum for robust debates and a beacon of hope for the people it represents, it ought to shun undesirable conduct and strictly uphold the rules and laws under which it functions.

The president’s genuine gesture of acknowledging Malema’s important contribution to the debate, as well as the speaker’s exemplary apology (which instantly inspired Malema himself to apologise to DA leader Helen Zille for saying the same) challenges all parties to restore a climate that is conducive to lively, fearless and constructive debates necessary to take this nation forward.

Such climate must be without the insults and histrionics, threats of violence, intolerance to opposing views, rowdiness and unbridled anarchy that often characterised the current parliamentary term.

The public has had the misfortune of witnessing atrocious conduct that threatens to collapse the prime institution of our constitutional democracy, Parliament.

Just in the last few weeks, we have seen the EFF in particular presiding over rampant and systematic disruptions of the sittings of the house – an attempt to prevent the president’s state of the nation address, threatening violence against fellow MPs and blood on the floor of Parliament, its chief whip Floyd Shivambu threatening to bring a gun to the house and hurling unprintable obscenities to those with whom they disagreed.

The DA, on the other hand, resorted to mimicking the EFF in order to share the spoils of any press coverage.

Parliamentary chief whips who met recently in the aftermath of last week’s disruption were unanimous in their view that anarchy and deliberate disobedience must be shunned.

Indeed the rules and laws must be applied consistently, fairly and firmly to ensure a functional and effective Parliament – for example, where the need arises to implement Section 11 of the Powers and Privileges Act, which compels the presiding officers to, upon assessment of the situation, call in the police into the chamber to restore order and calm. Such must happen without fail.

The rules and the laws governing the business of the institution are the only mechanisms that stand between anarchy and order; between Parliament and its collapse.

Last week’s debate on the state of the nation address – vibrant, heated and yet accident-free – provided a solid foundation from which all parliamentary parties should restore orderliness and mutual tolerance.

To achieve this, the supremacy of the house rules and the laws governing the businesses of the house must be respected.

Mischief-makers, who unfortunately deprive not only the nation but other parties from fulfilling their constitutional functions, ought to be isolated and defeated.

The president and the speaker’s gestures lay a solid base from which to begin building a vibrant, effective and activist Parliament that is capable of carrying out its constitutional obligations.

The spirit of their actions underscores a principle synonymous with vibrant democratic parliaments, where we can intensely disagree but still respect one another, where we can oppose one another without spilling blood, where we can dislike each other’s politics and yet work together to take South Africa forward.

The president’s closing remarks in his state of the nation address reply were profound: “Even when we differ, we must not get angry. Why do we get angry? This is not a war we are fighting. Democracy says we must share our views even if we differ.”

The sentiments expressed in the president’s reply and the speaker’s apology essentially encourage and promote a parliamentary culture of vibrant debates, mutual respect and tolerance of opposing views.

It is incumbent on all of us to take to heart the spirit with which their sentiments were made in the interest of building a functional and effective people’s Parliament.

» Moloto Mothapo is the ANC’s spokesperson in Parliament

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