Punch-up Parliament

2014-08-05 06:45

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Why let decorum get in the way of a good old-fashioned disagreement, asks Caiphus Kgosana, who also wonders whether we shouldn’t put protocol aside

In September 1998, a fierce argument broke out in the National Assembly between ANC MPs and those of the then National Party.

Fingers wagging and voices rising, it was not long before all hell broke loose. Manie Schoeman of the National Party started the skirmish by punching ANC rival Johnny de Lange, but he landed a weak one on the cheek.

The burly De Lange, who was chairperson of Parliament’s justice portfolio committee, retaliated with a solid blow that floored Schoeman.

Some of those who witnessed the altercation on Parliament’s internal monitors claim De Lange’s hook knocked Schoeman out for a few seconds.

That remains the only recorded physical fight in the 20 years of the democratic Parliament. Even though emotions have at times threatened to boil over once more, MPs have avoided the urge to turn Parliament into a boxing ring.

But since the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) entered parliamentary politics, the temperature of heated debates has risen exponentially to levels last experienced in the mid- to late 1990s.

The EFF’s relatively young caucus of red-overall-clad, radical MPs and its leader Julius Malema have rubbed the dominant ANC up the wrong way.

The governing party’s younger MPs – who are Malema’s political contemporaries and served with him before he was expelled from the ANC – have responded to the EFF’s provocation with their own brand of fire.

The situation threatened to spiral completely out of control during the debate on the president’s budget vote as warring parties spoke of “sorting each other out” away from the corridors.

EFF MPs have picked fights with other opposition parties as well.

Loud disagreements between EFF firebrand Andile Mngxitama and Pieter Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus led to the two nearly coming to blows outside the National Assembly shortly after the opening of Parliament.

Loud disagreements between EFF firebrand Andile Mngxitama and Pieter Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus led to the two nearly coming to blows outside the National Assembly shortly after the opening of Parliament
Picture: Lulama Zenzile

Although not restricting freedom of speech, South Africa’s Parliament demands that a certain level of decorum be adopted during debates.

Rules of the National Assembly punish MPs for inane things such as calling a fellow legislator by their first name and conversing out loud or interrupting another MP when they are speaking, except when raising a point of order or asking a question.

Add the sleep-inducing reading of speeches and unnecessary demands for MPs to “respect each other” and you have a relatively tame Parliament compared with other countries.

The House of Commons in the UK, for example – on which our National Assembly is largely based – encourages robust interaction between opposing MPs. There are no holy cows on its green leather seats and even the prime minister of the day is not safe from opposition heckling.

MPs in other parts of world such as India and Turkey sometimes engage in open brawls.

These are extreme examples we shouldn’t emulate, but there’s no reason our MPs should be forced to be extra civil towards one another when expressing different viewpoints.

Political parties represented in Parliament disagree on policies, ideology, political strategy and direction. Why must they always be nice to one another when expressing these differences in debates?

ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani has threatened to take action against his MPs who react to provocation from the EFF.

But why must Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela be forced to restrain himself in the face of verbal onslaughts directed at his party or the administration he serves?

Equally, why must EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu be forced to show respect for Manamela or Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba when they all share equal contempt for each another?

Some political analysts and self-righteous commentators in newspapers and on social-networking sites have lamented what they call the degeneration of parliamentary politics since the introduction of the EFF.

Even the national working committee of the ANC went as far as to describe the EFF as a rebel movement in the making, whose end goal is the overthrow of the state.

Such alarming observations are wholly misplaced. As much as no one wants parliamentary deliberations to degenerate into open brawls, the EFF has brought a level of attention to debates last seen when De Lange knocked out Schoeman.

South Africans are once again excited about the goings-on in the National Assembly. That can only be good for democracy. It is definitely more exciting than the visuals of snoozing backbenchers we have been subjected to for the past 10 years.

Elsewhere in the paper, we report that the ANC caucus wants parliamentary debates to be aired live by the SABC in the afternoons.

If the National Assembly is allowed to maintain this current tempo, that is one show many South Africans will be tuning in to watch.

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