My primary school teacher told my mother, so the story goes, that I'll be in Parliament one day. Turns out Juffrou Visser was right.
On May 21, 2014, I made my way to Plein Street as a misty rain fell over Cape Town for the first day of the Fifth Parliament. Not as an MP, which Juffrou Visser probably had in mind (which is concerning, because PW Botha was still president when I was in pre-primary school), but as a parliamentary reporter.
Once on the precinct, the first thing I saw signalled that the Fifth would be a Parliament like no other.
A few soon-to-be sworn in EFF MPs were dancing around the bust of Nelson Mandela in front of the imposing entrance to the National Assembly, their red outfits brightening the grey surrounds and sky, while the other soon-to-be sworn in MPs scurried to the Poorthuis-entrance to get out of the rain.
And so started an all-consuming five years in the depraved maelstrom of South African politics.
On days like those, I turn to the words of Hunter S Thompson: "No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride… and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten."
Well, I tuned in, I freaked out, I got beaten.
I also waved my phone in the air while shouting "Bring back the signal!", had a stun grenade explode next to my boot (they don't call it a stun grenade for nothing), watched the president nodding off (more than once), witnessed protesting students swarm onto the parliamentary precinct, saw a former minister of finance playing a game on his tablet shortly after a new president was elected (if only that was the last time he was pictured playing by himself)… if I list every weird, out of place thing I saw in the Fifth Parliament, this story will get very long. It would also be missing the point.
Much has happened during this term of Parliament, which came to an end late last month. But that is not the story of this Parliament. The story of this Parliament is what didn't happen.
One of Parliament's most important jobs is to hold the executive to account. Basically, what this means is that Parliament must ensure that the president, his cabinet and government does what it is supposed to do, without looting the country's coffers. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?
As the Fifth Parliament got underway with its business, there was a rondavel shaped shadow looming over the then president and his party – Nkandla. Public money was used to refurbish the president's home! A whole R246 million! Scandal!
Oh, how quaint the Nkandla debacle now seems. If only we knew what revelations were still to come. Back then the Guptas were just a wealthy Indian family whose relatives and friends had unfettered access to Waterkloof Air Force base. And Bosasa, well, we knew there's something off about Bosasa, but nobody seemed to care.
About two months before the 2014 elections, former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released her report on Nkandla called Secure in Comfort (cue ANC conspiracy theories and vicious attacks on Madonsela). She found Zuma and his family had unduly benefitted from upgrades which amounted to R246m, and that Zuma had to pay back a portion of this money.
Precisely four months after the Fifth Parliament's first day, on August 21, 2014, Nkandla's chickens left their famous security feature coops and came home to Parliament to roost. Zuma was in Parliament to answer questions. The president has to appear every quarter in the National Assembly to account to MPs (in theory, at least).
As Zuma dodged a question from Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane about a possible conflict of interest in his appointment of the national director of public prosecutions while facing corruption charges, a DA MP yelled: "That's not an answer!"
"Heh-heh-heh… that is an answer…" Zuma coolly responded.
Then he had to answer EFF leader Julius Malema's question on when he will pay back the money for Nkandla, as the Public Protector recommended.
Zuma's answer was one sentence informing the honourable speaker that the honourable members will be aware that he handed in his reports on the investigations into Nkandla to Parliament the week before, on 14 August 1994.
"2014! 2014! Sorry, honourable speaker. 2014!" he corrected himself quickly, chuckling.
But Malema was in no mood for laughing. With the air of a sniper taking aim, he got up for his follow-up question, basically repeating his original question, just adding that they will not leave before getting an answer.
This apparently amused Zuma and the ANC MPs, but Malema wasn't laughing. He again repeated his question.
"Order! Order! Order!" he viciously mocked the ANC MP who jumped up for a point of order to complain that he already had his turn.
"We need answers. Please!"
That "please" wasn't a friendly request.
Pay back the money!
Speaker Baleka Mbete didn't budge, neither did Zuma."PAY BACK THE MONEY! PAY BACK THE MONEY!" EFF MPs chanted, banging their hardhats on the desks for percussion.
Mbete's order for them to sit down, increasing in volume and shrillness each time, did little to quell the red fury. Neither did her threat to ask the serjeant-at-arms to escort "honourably members not taking the sitting seriously" out of the house.
In the end, she suspended the question session.
EFF MPs continued with their chant. DA MPs huddled around their chief whip John Steenhuisen before leaving the house. Some ANC MPs lingered and eventually followed suit.
A police officer appeared in the press gallery, instructing us to leave. We refused. I was tweeting, and a parliamentary official instructed me not to. I then stood in a corner and tweeted that I was instructed not to.
After a while, then Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer arrived in the chamber. In the press gallery, we suspected that police officers were positioned outside the chamber's doors. After about an hour, then minister of telecommunications and the post service Siyabonga Cwele and his successor as minister of state security David Mahlobo entered the chamber, like spies behind enemy lines.
They conferred with Malema and EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu and left. After a few minutes Cwele and Mahlobo were back. Later we learned that they mediated that Mbete could adjourn the sitting and the EFF would leave the chamber.
And so the die was cast for presidential question sessions during the rest of Zuma's reign. He would dodge questions, make fun of the opposition, complain that he comes to answer questions, but is met with disrespect. The truest words he ever spoke from that podium was: "You come with meandos, I answer with meandos. Easy!"
Every time Zuma was having a laugh behind the podium, he was cheered on by the ANC caucus and shielded by the speaker.
The day the Pay Back the Money hashtag was born is also remarkable for a few other reasons.
Birth of a securocratic Parliament
The EFF in effect drew a line in the sand, saying, we're not going to sit here and play by the rules if those same rules are going to allow Zuma to do as he pleases.
Zuma and the ANC's response? Clampdown!
It was the birth of a securocratic Parliament. In November 2014, EFF MP Reneilwe Mashabela stated what seemed like the obvious in a debate: "Zuma is a thief!" House chairperson Cedric Frolick said she must withdraw her statement. After her repeated refusals to withdraw do so and leave the podium, riot police were called into the chamber and a fight broke out, with DA MPs joining in, trying to prevent the police's entry into the chamber.
This happened at about 22:30 with only one reporter in the press gallery (unfortunately, not me). Earlier, after a filibuster by the opposition, the ad hoc committee on Nkandla's report exonerating Zuma (more on this later) was debated, and adopted by the house.
The 2015 State of the Nation Address was probably the incident that showed the Zuma presidency for what it was – a vicious assault on everything decent about South Africa.
First off, there was the signal jammer. I was the first journalist taking a seat in the press gallery, a good few hours before proceedings were due to start. I noticed that I didn't have a cellphone signal, which is a problem not only for live tweeting but mostly for the logistics of our operation which had WhatsApp as the main communication mode. I left the chamber, and my signal returned. I alerted my colleagues, who later admitted they initially thought I was being paranoid. As more reporters showed up, we noticed an odd contraption in one of the gallery's doorways – a signal jammer.
We alerted Parliament, but nothing changed. As the procession entered, we protested, with our cellphones in the air and chanting "Bring back the signal!" Opposition MPs joined in our chant, with ANC MPs answering with chants of "ANC! ANC!" I'll never forget Blade Nzimande grinning up that the press gallery and motioning for us to leave.
Eventually, the jammer was switched off, after a note from then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made its way to spy minister David Mahlobo. Mahlobo later said "a member on duty" failed to terminate the jammer, which was meant to enforce a no-fly zone to protect the president and deputy president due to an "unprecedented threat". Funny thing was, there was a signal in the National Assembly's lobby, but at least those pesky aeroplanes couldn't fly inside the chamber.
But the signal jamming was only the entrée for the main dish of undemocratic depravity that was dished up that evening.
SONA 2015 stripped Parliament of its last vestiges of dignity. One can't blame the EFF alone for this spectacle, but the 25 strong rowdy-in-red group played their part. In the days before the SONA, they made it clear that they will ask Zuma when he will pay back the money. It was basically a #PayBackTheMoney rerun, and Mbete was prepared for it.
Not only Mbete, but also some burly riot police officers dressed in white shirts and black pants. As the EFF got their point-of-order game going, Mbete called the security forces in, and with military precision, the Whiteshirts zoomed in on the Red Onesies and forcibly "helped them to leave the chamber".
The violence is, however, not the enduring picture of that evening. After getting chucked out of the National Assembly, EFF MPs and some supporters marched up and down the parliamentary precinct until Malema positioned himself on the steps of the Marks Building, where opposition parties are housed.
His red overall was unbuttoned, revealing a torn white T-shirt.
"We will continue to ask questions of Number One Tsotsi!" he bellowed. Battered and bruised and wearing a scowl of indignation, Malema was basking in the glare of cameras, dictaphones and notebooks.
This is the stuff future tyrants build their legend on.
By 2017 you knew Jacob Zuma was due in the house simply by spotting the police's water cannon and trucks with barbed wire in Parliament's vicinity as you pass the bergies walking down the ironically titled Hope Street.
The Nkandla sham
While many people probably think of the National Assembly's sittings when they hear the word "Parliament", most of the work gets done during committee meetings.
Towards the end of its term, the Fourth Parliament set up an ad hoc committee to deal with the Nkandla-matter, but it didn't get anything done before the elections. And so, another ad hoc committee was appointed soon after the Fifth Parliament got going.
It was a sham.
I was still working for the Afrikaans media at the time and habitually referred to the committee as the 'ad jok komitee' (ad lie committee). Much to the opposition's consternation, the committee refused to call either Jacob Zuma or Thuli Madonsela. Opposition MPs eventually boycotted the committee.
Let's take a moment to remind ourselves which ANC MPs abdicated their constitutional duties in order to protect a crook: Cedric Frolick, who then chaired the committee, ANC deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude, Mathole Motshekga, Francois Beukman, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and the late Beatrice Ngcobo. Lindiwe Maseko was an alternate member.
Dlakude and Kubayi-Ngubane were pictured painting their nails in the committee meeting.
The report was adopted in the November 2014 sitting mentioned earlier, which turned violent.
But the Nkandla stench was still stinking up Parliament. The ad hoc committee's report recommended that the police minister had to ascertain which of the refurbishments at Nkandla constitutes security measures, and how much Zuma had to pay for them.
So, in May 2015 then police minister Nathi Nhleko presented his findings to the media. It was bizarre. Nhleko, sweating profusely, looked around the room, surely knowing that he was lying and that we knew he was lying. But he continued with the charade, famously playing a video with "O Sole Mio" as a soundtrack, which claimed to prove that Zuma's swimming pool was a security feature called a fire pool.
Again, an ad hoc committee on Nkandla was established. They even visited Zuma's homestead in Nkandla.
They found Zuma didn't have to pay a cent.
Let's take another moment to remind ourselves which ANC MPs wanted you to believe a swimming pool, chicken coops, an amphitheatre and a kraal are security features: Deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude, house chairperson Cedric Frolick, Mathole Motshekga, Francois Beukman, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Beatrice Ngcobo, Dumisani Gamede and Lindiwe Maseko.
When the National Assembly adopted this report, Malema warned: "I'll see you in court!"
A promise he made good on.
Mr Hlaudi's misrule
Unfortunately, the 'ad jok komitee' on Nkandla wasn't the only farcical committee. At the start of the Fifth Parliament, I covered the Portfolio Committee on Communication, which more often than not resembled an infuriating piece of absurdist theatre, starring Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Faith Muthambi, with the ANC MPs in supporting roles.
Motsoeneng himself was dogged by a raft of Public Protector recommendations against him, which the ANC members did their utmost to disregard. Instead, they basked in the reflected glory of "Mr Hlaudi". Mr Hlaudi often showed up in the committee wearing his purple suit. If only his dress code was the only thing he had in common with the psychopathic Joker in The Dark Knight.
The ANC MPs also kowtowed before Muthambi.
The DA's Gavin Davis, and later Phumzile van Damme, always came to these meetings armed with a string of pertinent questions, but often it went unanswered as they were shouted down by ANC MPs, who would play the race card against Davis and speak down to Van Damme as a young person.
The SABC is still reeling from Motsoeneng and his sycophants' misrule. The Fifth Parliament had an opportunity in 2014 to stop the rot, but they didn't.
This is not the only example of a crisis that should have been averted. For months IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe and DA MP Bridget Masango raised red flags about a looming disaster at the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), but chairperson of the social development committee, Rosemary Capa, protected then minister of social development Bathabile Dlamini long enough to ensure that CPS would have to get their contract.
There is a long list of state department and entities currently not working optimally, at best, and at worst in crisis – Eskom, Prasa, the Department of Water and Sanitation to name but a few. Each of these entities has a portfolio committee which is supposed to exercise oversight on its operations.
But the common trend is that ANC MPs will rather be deferential to his or her excellency, the honourable minister than do their job. Opposition MPs, of course, jump at the opportunity to carry out rigorous oversight. It also serves their interest, naturally. But, if a governing party has a sizeable majority, everything happens on their terms.
Malema made good on his promise, supported by other opposition parties, and took the Nkandla report to the Constitutional Court.
On March 31 2016 Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered a scathing judgment on Parliament, setting aside its resolution absolving Zuma from compliance with the remedial action taken by the Public Protector, saying it is inconsistent with the Constitution.
"The failure by the National Assembly to hold the President accountable by ensuring that he complies with the remedial action taken against him, is inconsistent with its obligations to scrutinise and oversee executive action and to maintain oversight of the exercise of executive powers by the President," reads Mogoeng's judgment.
The highest court in the land also found that Zuma breached the Constitution.
A president breaching the Constitution is the type of thing a Parliament that takes its oversight function seriously should deal with. Rather helpfully, the Constitution provides mechanisms to get rid of a constitutionally delinquent president. A president can be removed through a motion of no confidence, or through a process sanctioned by Section 89 of the Constitution.
On April 5, 2016, DA leader Mmusi Maimane brought a motion that Zuma is removed in terms of Section 89 of the Constitution, or impeached, as the process is also known, even though the term isn't used in the South African Constitution. Maimane's motivation was the Nkandla-ruling. 143 MPs voted in favour of the motion, 235 against – every ANC MP present.
Meanwhile, the Guptoid state capture allegations picked up momentum culminating in another Public Protector's report – Madonsela's last hurrah, titled State of Capture. In November 2016 Maimane brought another motion of no confidence, citing Zuma's "irrational, irresponsible and reckless" leadership. 126 MPs voted in favour, 214 against. By August 2017 Zuma's chokehold on his party was beginnng to weaken. The revelations about the Guptas' capture started to pile up, some dissidents in the ANC started speaking up and to add the party was going into a leadership battle, causing the factional divides to grow. Again a motion of no confidence reached the National Assembly's order paper.
This time there was the off chance that it just might succeed. Opposition leaders claimed there was enough disgruntled ANC MPs to break ranks. They needed about 50 to vote for the motion if every opposition MP voted for it.
The nerves in the ANC were palpable, then secretary-general of the ANC Gwede Mantashe came from Luthuli House to urge the ANC caucus to toe the party line. He told them it would be difficult for the ANC NEC to come up with a presidential candidate if Zuma is removed.
In the end, about 30 ANC MPs broke ranks. 177 voted in support of the motion, 198 MPs against – Zuma's closest shave.
In the end, Zuma wasn't removed as president by the multi-party body that elected him in 2014, but by the machinations of his own party in early 2018, ironically a pending motion of no confidence brought by the EFF was used as leverage.
There were occasions where Parliament fulfilled its oversight obligations, notably the ad hoc committee which inquired into the SABC board, and the Portfolio Committee on State Owned Enterprises' Eskom inquiry.
Recently, ANC chief whip told the media at a press conference that the ANC caucus at their lekgotla in 2016, after the Nkandla judgment, undertook to "never and never again we as an ANC caucus will do anything that is illegal".
When oversight works
Towards the latter half of 2016, when Motsoeneng's reign of terror at the SABC reached ridiculous levels of insanity, Jackson Mthembu made wholesale changes to the ANC contingent on the Portfolio Committee on Communications, who then decided to institute an inquiry into matters relating to the SABC board. An ad hoc committee, chaired by Vincent Smith, was appointed.
I covered this committee extensively, and it truly exhibitied robust oversight. Faith Muthambi, who was used to being treated with the utmost deference, was properly grilled, with the DA's Van Damme and ANC MP Makhosi Khoza leading the charge. In an extensive list of findings, the committee found Muthambi "incompetent" and included her amongst those people who should be investigated for whether they misled MPs. Parliament's legal department found that her testimony "could be seen as an attempt to mislead the inquiry".
However, if the portfolio committee did their job like the ad hoc committee from the start, it would not be necessary to have the inquiry in the first place.
Why did the committee work? The ANC MPs on the committee did their jobs, instead of running interference for a minister.
I recall a picture I took of Khoza, IFP MP Narend Singh and EFF MP Fana Mokoena posing with Van Damme for a selfie before one of the meetings, as an example of MPs coming together.
Similarly, the Eskom inquiry was also lauded for good interparty-relations.
Another committee who should be praised for fulfilling their oversight role without fear or favour but with utmost fervour is the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa). The committee was chaired by the APC's sole MP Themba Godi, who calls absolutely everyone "comrade". Now disgraced ANC whip on the committee Nyami Booi would come down just as hard on errant officials as the DA's Tim Brauteseth.
The point is, when parties work together to exercise their oversight role, things get done.
At the start of 2018, the ANC put the opening of Parliament on hold while it sorted out internal squabbles. Nothing much the opposition could do about it. Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president, and he went on to deliver his first SONA, promising a new dawn.
On that night, it certainly felt that a dark cloud over Parliament had lifted. Ramaphosa's overtures and the opposition's response gave the fleeting impression that Parliament might just function as it is supposed to.
Expropriation without compensation
That didn't quite happen. Soon after Ramaphosa's rise to the throne, the EFF brought a motion to amend the Constitution to allow expropriation without compensation. The ANC didn't have much room to manoeuvre and adopted a resolution to that effect at their national conference in December 2017. They proposed an amendment to the motion, which passed.
The process that unfollowed divided the house, with a clear line between the parties in support of expropriation without compensation.
While the public participation process to determine whether Section 25 of the Constitution should be amended was underway – a massive undertaking stretching to the furthest corners of the country – Ramaphosa took a leaf out of the Zuma-playbook and made a late-night announcement on the ANC's stance on the matter. He said the Constitution should be amended to make explicit what is implicit in Section 25.
This is the line the ANC took when deliberating on the matter. Having said that, the parties who didn't support an amendment – the DA, IFP, Cope and FF Plus – also didn't seem to alter their position after the public participation process.
This decision to amend the Constitution, by the way, might well be the Fifth Parliament's lasting legacy on the legislative front.
As it became time for SONA 2019, many South Africans were wondering whether the light Ramaphosa promised was indeed a new dawn or an oncoming train. What we do know, is that that light certainly isn't powered by Eskom.
Ramaphosa tried to reprise the jaunty Jazz of Hugh Masekela's "Thuma Mina" during his 2019 edition, but the pall of the gloomy post-punk of Joy Division's "New Dawn Fades" was cast over the event instead – devastating allegations of graft involving several ministers and members of his party and a company – Bosasa – who gave R500 000 to his campaign to become president of the ANC. This, after a year in which the economy did not take off, insufficient jobs were created and racial tension simmered, connected crooks were still on the loose.
Nothing much has changed, despite the hope Ramaphoria brought a year before. The ANC in Parliament was also up to its old tricks.
After Police Minister Bheki Cele made it clear that he wants Robert McBride gone as head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the Portfolio Committee on Police's ANC contingent came out guns blazing for McBride. When push came to shove in the Portfolio Committee on Communications' recommendations for new SABC board members, the ANC used its majority to ram through ANC-connected candidates on the list. After a long investigation in the early naturalisation of members of the Gupta family, the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs made several findings against officials, but the former minister, master debater and ANC NEC member Malusi Gigaba got off scot-free.
When you cut through all the noise, violent insanity and inanity of the Fifth Parliament, it is difficult to see it as anything other than a launch pad for the EFF and a rubber stamp for Luthuli House.
The members of the Sixth Parliament, which will be elected in little over a month, will do well to remember that they will take an oath to uphold the Consitution of South Africa on behalf of the people, not to protect a president or a party.
- Jan Gerber is a politics reporter for News24. Follow him on Twitter: @gerbjan.
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