Melanie Verwoerd

EFF in Parliament: Why time out and violence is not the solution

2016-05-25 08:15

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Melanie Verwoerd

In the mid-90s, mid-way through my speech to Parliament on the “exhilarating” topic of  local government powers, there was an audible gasp from the gallery. People in the gallery suddenly jumped up and applauded, MPs woke up and waved. Sadly it was not because of my oratory skills. Madiba, having a few minutes to spare, had entered the chamber. He did this from time to time. Then speaker, Frene Ginwala, would happily allow the applause to go on for a while before welcoming the president.  As he departed Mandela would turn, wave at the gallery and the applause and ululation would be repeated.

Twenty-odd years later I am back in Parliament. Sitting in the gallery last Tuesday, I reflected on how much things have changed since my eight years as an ANC MP.

There were still many familiar  faces on the floor – although with a few more grey hairs and extra kilos (clearly Tim Noakes has had little success here). The gallery was still packed, except now many were dressed in EFF uniforms or T-shirts with the president’s face and “Accused no 1” on the front. They applauded, though this time not for the president but for the opposition, which resulted in an immediate point of order from the ANC and a warning from the Speaker that the gallery “should only observe and not participate”.

The increased security presence was also a far cry from the open, inviting Parliament of 1994. I counted 18  police vehicles around Parliament, 12 security officers  in the lobby of parliament and 10 in the gallery. Outside 20 “close security” officers for the ministers were waiting, together with numerous uniformed police.

The reason was obvious. After just seven minutes the Speaker instructed the sergeant-at-arms to remove the members of the EFF from the chamber. It was predictable. Baleka Mbete, (possibly embarrassed by the president’s earlier appeal to her to get the House in order) behaved like an exasperated mother and over-reacted to the slightest provocation. The EFF was smarting for a fight and that is what they got. Their eviction was shockingly violent.

In the aftermath one of the opposition MPs appealed to the Speaker to find another way to deal with matters. She dismissed him, but he was right. This cannot continue. The legislative body is steadily becoming a source of ridicule here and abroad.

It is up to the three key role players to find a solution to this ongoing saga. I believe the President has a key responsibility to get Parliament back in order. I cannot imagine either President Mandela or President Mbeki allowing things to get so out of hand.

Of course at the heart of the problem is the fact that the President has broken the highest law of the country. Thus the EFF members question why they should abide by the rules if there are no repercussions for the President when he transgresses.  The President, therefore, urgently needs to deliver to Parliament an appropriate response to the issues raised by the Constitutional Court judgement. In doing so he will make life easier for himself, the Speaker and his party.

Instead President Jacob Zuma seems to mock the process. He comes to the House to fulfil his obligation to answer questions, but after reading the prepared answers he treats supplementary questions from the opposition with disdain.

“Ask you question properly,” he said to  Opposition leader Mmusi Maimane, last Tuesday. “What have the Guptas got to do with me?” And: “If you think I am a joke, you should laugh” (which they did).

By laughing off the opposition’s criticism, he invites the kind of unruly behaviour that the EFF displays. More importantly, he shows contempt not only for the Constitutional Court but also for parliamentary processes and thus ultimately for the Constitution.

It is obvious that the Speaker, Baleka Mbete, is struggling. When under pressure, she applies the rules inconsistently, often changing positions midway through. Strangely after all her years of experience she still seems to need regular advice from counsel when things become challenging, during which the EFF uses the opportunity to shout slogans and insults at the ANC, causing parliament to descend into chaos.

During the impeachment debate, her presiding over the proceedings was questioned. She wisely adjourned the House, leaving the party whips to resolve the conflict, but while they were busy she came into the chamber to greet and chat with ANC MPs on the floor.  As with previous Speakers, Frene Ginwala and Max Sisulu, her ANC allegiance is well known, but I cannot recall a time when her predecessors had flaunted their party relationship so blatantly  in front of opposition members. Such open partisanship must surely add to the Opposition’s obvious loss of respect for her - and once authority is lost it cannot easily be regained. A change of Speaker is urgently required.

The EFF should also stop playing victim and act more reasonably. When you are part of an institution you should either abide by its rules, or if they are unfair change them. You can’t act like a two-year-old, screaming and throwing your hard hat and bottled water out of the cot every time things don’t go your way. Of course, the Speaker has used “time-out” so often that it has lost its effect, and now it seems physical punishment is all that is left. But as we know, that is no solution.

A lot more talking and dealing behind the scenes is required. It is time to call in Cyril Ramaphosa, as I believe happened once before, but this time Luthuli House should not sink the agreement as apparently happened on that previous occasion. If the EFF then breaks the agreement, they should be suspended for longer and longer periods. To make an impact you have to be present and money talks – especially if you have a big tax bill to pay off.

Parliament should be a place of rigorous debate, wit and passion. But what example is set by our “honourable” elected members when this important institution is treated with disdain, and disagreements are dealt with through violence?

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.  

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    anc  |  cyril ­ramaphosa  |  jacob zuma  |  mmusi mai­mane

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