Books:The MP who stirred the hornet’s nest

2011-11-26 14:44

The first time Parliament was told about the arms deal in 1994, old apartheid generals, supported by Minister Joe Modise, asked us to approve its allocation in the Budget.

In the debate that followed, I argued for cutting military expenditure and reallocating the savings to socioeconomic spending.

The arms deal was a misplaced priority and corruption would inevitably follow, as it had in most countries.

At government’s conference on its 1996 post-Beijing Cabinet commitments on gender equality, I argued: “We must ask departments to put their money where their mouths are – to take away spending in defence on corvettes that cost R434?million each, submarines that cost R1.1?billion each and generals who cost R464?638 each per year.”

At this conference, government announced its most significant commitment: “To decrease military expenditure and reallocate the savings to female empowerment.”

In 2001 in the ANC caucus, after Alec Erwin argued that the deal “would not set back RDP objectives”, I asked how committees could check whether the spending on the arms deal was in line with ANC priorities and the mandate
of government.

There were other questions, some of which Barbara Hogan later described as gatkruiping (brown-nosing). Erwin answered all the questions except mine – he said it would need “a more detailed discussion”.

He did not say when or where this would happen. After Erwin had finished, President Thabo Mbeki addressed us in his characteristically quiet, measured tones.

He began with the words “I’d like to tell Comrade Pregs...” and later repeated the phrase in his address. He said that we were elected by the ANC, and gained and lost our positions as chairs of committees through the ANC.

As Mbeki talked, I meditated on the power of love and began to feel a calm power fill me. Later that year, when we stood for Parliament’s customary moment of silence before the vote on the defence budget, I tried to centre myself to act with clarity.

I could not walk out of the chamber, away from this vote – as MPs sometimes did – nor could I sit without registering anything. The vote held a powerful message.

We had been voted into power by millions of South Africans, many of whom were still waiting patiently for “a better life for all”.

Breathing into the fear rumbling through me, I pressed the blue button, registering my opposition to the arms deal. It was a matter of minutes before an ANC whip, Andries Nel, walked over.

“Comrade Pregs, the chief whip has asked me to check something with you. It seems that there may have been a problem with the computers.” “No, Comrade, the computers are correct. They accurately reflect my vote,” I said.

He was flustered by my response. I felt sorry for him. He would now have to explain my vote to the chief whip, Tony Yengeni.

Shortly after the vote, I took part in the national gender summit. When the minister in charge of women, Essop Pahad, spoke, he worked himself into a minor frenzy.

“And this thing that Pregs did not vote for the arms deal. If that is so, well, we will deal with her in other forums. But she is talking absolute nonsense about women and poverty.”Pahad was cut short by booing.

That weekend, the Sunday Independent carried an article headlined “Minister booed over denial of women’s needs”.

The reporter revealed that I “was the only ANC MP who did not vote for the defence budget when it came before Parliament at the end of the last parliamentary session”.

Clearly, not only the chief whip had scrutinised the voting record.

This is an extract from Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination, by Pregs Govender

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