Something will have to give

2015-02-25 15:00

There were no signs of President Jacob Zuma the “broken man” in Parliament during Thursday’s debate.

He was his usual languorous self, until he went off script with a rather rousing history of South Africa in response to the complaints of Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus about whites being marginalised.

Then the president did what his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, often did – he ignored the official opposition and praised Julius Malema, Mosiuoa Lekota and Mangosuthu Buthelezi for their “constructive” interventions.

Yet, bluster aside, we should not be distracted from continuing to ask the hard questions about the chaos of the state of the nation address (Sona).

What should we make of the official explanations for the breach of constitutional rights that night?

Speaker Baleka Mbete has lambasted the “assault” on our democracy with explanations that were as clear as mud. What we now know is Mbete received information on the day before Sona regarding “devices” to be used, but curiously seemed not to pay it too much attention.

And then, as she said, “what happened, happened”. As Speaker, Mbete has full control of the House. That she appeared so resigned to the invasion of her turf is an abdication of her responsibilities.

She remained adamant she was within her rights to call in “security services” in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act of 2004. The real issue here is why security officers were armed and disguised as waiters.

Such brute force seems disproportionate to the “disturbance” the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs were accused of causing. It would seem as if the executive and the presiding officers orchestrated this plan to use force, and that changed the game.

Surely State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s explanation regarding the jamming device was the most disingenuous of them all. In the latest statement by the State Security Agency, we were told the signal was scrambled due to an “operational error” by a member on duty who failed to “terminate the device” and an investigation was under way. Why was the jamming device there in the first place and for what purpose?

No prizes for guessing that some low-level bureaucrat will be forced to take responsibility while the political masters remain unaccountable. After all, this is the same security cluster that came up with the idea of a fire pool.

Still other questions remain. When did the Speaker become aware of the scrambling of the signal and what did she do about it? It seems journalists informed parliamentary officials the signal was scrambled at about 4.30pm. That’s plenty of time to fix what was broken.

One can invoke parliamentary rules and use court procedures, as the media and other bodies have done this past week. It is more than right to “throw the book” at those who trample on constitutional rights to receive and impart information. But the law aside, this still leaves us at an impasse. The EFF will continue to be obstructionist until Zuma answers the Nkandla question.

So the only real solution is a principled political one in which all parties agree to adhere to the rules – and that includes the president. At the heart of this destabilisation is a president who has shown himself to be entirely unaccountable on the issue of Nkandla and his associated personal enrichment.

Any consensus that would see the EFF and the president adhere to their constitutional duties would be based on the premise that both parties are committed to the rule of law. An unaccountable president and an EFF unwilling to bend to the Speaker’s rulings will continue to tear down our democratic edifice.

If we are to restore the dignity of Parliament and the faith citizens have in the democratic process, something will have to give.

Will it be our Constitution, already straining under the weight of abuses of power, or will the ANC and the unruly EFF come to a détente of sorts in the interests of the country? Importantly, will President Zuma abide by the Public Protector’s recommendations and simply pay back the money?

February is based at the Institute for Security Studies

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