Zuma the puppet master

When South Africans get upset at National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete because she openly discriminates against opposition MPs or is all too happy to resort to heavy-handed methods inside the National Assembly, they must spare a thought for the pressure she is under from President Jacob Zuma.

On Thursday evening, during the state of the nation address in Parliament, we again saw how Mbete was quick in deciding to shut down and throw out MPs from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). She was committing the same mistakes that led a court to rule against her in an application by the party to challenge the docking of their salaries in December.

Among others, the court had questioned why she made rulings against EFF members as a group instead of individually tackling errant MPs.

This week, the white-shirted heavies she deployed decided to forcefully remove all EFF MPs when only four MPs had raised points of order.

So there is no doubt Mbete loses it when she’s confronted, a fact she has admitted to previously. Her inability to retain her cool and lack of judgement are drawbacks in the execution of her responsibilities.

But having observed the president last week at a lunch with editors and at The New Age business breakfast the day after the opening of Parliament, it is clear Mbete is acting in fulfilling Zuma’s wishes.

In fact, he feels Mbete and other presiding officers should be doing more to crack down on dissent in the National Assembly.

Last week, the president said he felt Mbete should not even have entertained the EFF in August last year when its members interrupted his speech and demanded that he pay back the money.

He repeated the sentiment on Friday, adding that, in the first place, Parliament should not even be allowing them to wear their mining helmets – because they use them to beat up people. “Parliament must stand up and apply the rules more strictly,” he said.

In general, President Zuma feels there is no respect for authority in South Africa because of democracy. He said this kind of democracy was not allowed in other countries. There was a hint that he’s pained that too much democracy allows people to get away with whatever they want to do.

So we have this odd situation where we think the Speaker is too heavy-handed, but her party leader feels she is too lenient.

On Thursday evening, most South Africans were aghast that the National Assembly could jam people’s cellphone signals, but it also appears to be a case of President Zuma’s underlings doing his bidding.

On Friday, the president said he was unsure about the jamming, but immediately added that Parliament had to act in the interests of security because it had been warned of disruptions. It is a moot point that preparations for the opening of Parliament this year had to be different due to threatened disruption.

But was a heavy-handed securocratic approach the only response Parliament could muster? Whatever happened to freedom of speech or persuasion? Why could President Zuma not be given an opportunity to answer the EFF’s question? If he was allowed to respond, and EFF members then still insisted on making a nuisance of themselves, it would have been the EFF exposed as charlatans not interested in the response but in theatrics.

Is security the only response Parliament can resort to when faced with a difficult situation? It would be unfortunate if this is so.

Last year, when the ANC in Parliament took a tough line in the Nkandla committee, seemingly bent on an outcome that would exonerate the president, we wondered at the logic and conduct of senior ANC MPs Cedric Frolick and Mathole Motshekga.

But having listened to President Zuma repeat that he is expecting an apology from people who accused him of squandering money on Nkandla, I now understand where the two men were coming from. Their posture was no frolic of their own (excuse the pun). It was coming directly from the top.

The president believes he has been cleared on the Nkandla matter despite Public Protector Thuli Madonsela finding he benefited unduly from the nonsecurity features at his homestead. Madonsela also ordered that he repay a portion of the expenditure. Despite this, he bemoaned the fact that “no one has apologised that my name was unfairly thrown up that I ate money”.

Over the past two days, the media have been scrambling to find answers about who sanctioned the jamming of phones and who approved the behaviour of the white shirts, but maybe we should abandon that line of enquiry, because the answer is obvious.

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