Better things to do

2008-02-07 00:00

Attending and listening to the debate in Parliament specially called to discuss urgently the electricity power crisis was for me a revelation.

Firstly, attendance by African National Congress members was pretty thin. Only about half of the party’s members appeared to be present. They had obviously ignored the call to Parliament for this critical debate.

The opposition benches were, in contrast, far better populated and significantly fuller, although of course their actual numbers were fewer than those of the ANC.

Most significant was the virtual emptiness of the government front benches and the absence of members of the Cabinet. Despite having publicly accepted responsibility to the nation for the power failures and the concomitant loss of economic growth, and having issued an apology, the president himself did not put in an appearance.

The deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on whose watch as Minister of Energy and Mineral Affairs, the seeds of the present debacle were laid, kept well away from this debate.

Missing were the following Cabinet ministers: Zola Skweyiya, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Bridgitte Mabandle, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Naledi Pandor, Lindiwe Hendricks, Ronnie Kasrils, Charles Nqakula, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Sydney Mufamadi, Jeff Radebe, Lindiwe Sisulu, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Nconde Balfour and Makenkesi Stofile. Deputy ministers Jabulani Moleketi, Mandisi Mpahlwa, Rob Davies and Aziz Pahad were also nowhere to be seen. Finally, not even the Minister in the Office of the President, Essop Pahad, showed his face.

Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota listened to every speech as did Alec Erwin and Buyelwa Sonjica, Minister of Energy Affairs. But then those two had to be there to try to defend the ANC’s position.

Deputy Minister for Justice and Constitutional Development Johnny de Lange, dressed for the beach, spent much of the afternoon bench hopping and holding affable private meetings with various ANC colleagues.

Jeremy Cronin tried to listen to the speakers, but was regularly interrupted by one or other ANC member who wanted a word in his ear. These days Cronin is a good person to be “in” with.

Sue van der Merwe, the publicly invisible Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, spent the afternoon pouring over a notebook, making copious notes and consulting her electronic diary, except for a protracted period when she was visited in her bench by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Her face lit up as he sat down next to her and, after removing her spectacles, a long, animated and obviously intimate tête-à-tête took place between them. Clearly, the ongoing debate was the last thing on their minds. When Manuel left, she put on her spectacles and resumed reading.

The government line was soon clear. The ANC was to be congratulated on the way in which the situation was being handled. The government, or at least Eskom, had miscalculated the country’s growth rate. It was implied, although not spelt out, that Eskom had messed up efforts to obtain private participation in the development of infrastructure and now that we are faced with outages and protracted load shedding (euphemisms for power failures), the whole country must stand together, make sacrifices, cut down on production and see us through the next seven years, while the government implements 10-point and seven-year plans and the like. After all, China, Canada, Brazil and California have also gone through periodical blackouts and survived.

Sonjica, in reading her 10-point plan, mentioned as point number four: “Go to bed earlier so that you can grow and be cleverer.” Although she smiled as she said this, the full asininity of her statement eluded her.

The ANC’s Joan Fubbs, miscalculating the current anger being felt by all South Africans, attempted to further divide the country by praising the fact that thanks to the present emergency the rich were getting a taste of the poor man’s medicine by learning to live without electricity and experiencing the challenges the poor face.

In the amazingly short time granted to opposition members to speak many good ideas were put forward by a number of speakers, including those from the Democratic Alliance, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Independent Democrats, African Christian Democratic Party and Louis Green, MP. However, the government did not seem too interested in what they had to say and definitely no one is going to resign.

Perhaps the only way to deal with this form of arrogance is via the ballot box — 2009 is not far off.

• David Dalling is a former long-serving member of Parliament and a parliamentary whip.

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