“If citizens don’t like a politician, it’s not a problem. If they don’t like Parliament, it’s a serious problem,” said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
“As things stand at the moment, it’s not really damaging the legislative cycle; the real problem is that it is damaging the standing of Parliament in the eyes of (South Africans).”
Friedman was commenting after a DA-EFF filibuster in the National Assembly led to 45 minutes of pandemonium in the House.
A public gallery packed with ANC T-shirt-wearing supporters and a handful of people wearing red berets listened to acrimonious exchanges including “voetsek” from the EFF benches, “Shut up, wena (you)!” from the ANC benches and “twat” from the DA benches.
There were also claims of a scuffle between ANC Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu and an EFF member.
Friedman said: “Obviously it’s bad for Parliament…. The core of the issue is you have a Speaker that’s not ready to resolve issues.”
Friedman said he did not foresee a change as long as Baleka Mbete, who is also the ANC national chairwoman, remained as Speaker.
While not commenting specifically on yesterday’s mayhem, Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, said there was a general concern about how the orderly business of the House had degenerated. “This displays a singular lack of leadership in the institution.”
Yesterday’s table-thumping chaos started after the latest of a series of controversial decisions, when Mbete invoked Rule 2’s “unforeseen circumstances” to limit the slot for motions to 45 minutes to prevent the sitting going on “possibly to midnight”.
Earlier, the ANC had unsuccessfully asked the multiparty parliamentary programming committee to change a programme that had already been consulted on.
The ANC wanted motions and members’ statements delayed until the end of a day packed with an 84-minute debate on the Nkandla ad hoc committee report, two other debates and 38 committee budget review and recommendation reports.
The DA and EFF then held party political caucuses, where it is believed they decided on a filibuster strategy to bring a flurry of motions on matters they had previously been frustrated in bringing before the House.
It is believed not all the opposition parties agreed with this strategy, but supported the call for Mbete’s ruling to be reversed.
At one stage the ANC supporters in the public gallery cheered Mbete, and parliamentary ushers had to step in to avert a scuffle between ANC and EFF supporters there.
Below them, DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard claimed Zulu had been involved in a scuffle with an EFF MP, leading to police intervention.
ANC MP Mandla Mandela immediately interjected: “This is not true!”
When a subsequent DA motion criticised the minister and pointed out it was all captured on social media, the ANC again objected, and Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli added: “We do not use YouTube for making a ruling in the House.”
Zulu denied the claims, but had to withdraw a reference to “liar” in her statement.
But that was not the end as another EFF MP insisted the incident had taken place. Again Mandela intervened, asking “this light-complexioned child”, as the parliamentary translator interpreted his isiXhosa statement, to withdraw the claim unconditionally.
DA chief whip John Steenhuisen led the filibuster, backed up by his deputy Mike Waters, who was ordered out of the House, but sat down instead. DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane also entered the fray: “We request that the debate continue as per schedule.” When Mbete ordered him to take his seat, he said: “I refuse”.
One after the other, DA and EFF MPs stood up to be recognised to speak against the ruling, as the Speaker was loudly heckled – “Go, go, go” came from the DA and EFF benches. Mbete adamantly and repeatedly announced her amended order of the day.
ANC MPs appeared gobsmacked, and the ministers in the front benches stared stonefaced across the floor. It was left to deputy minister John Jeffery, a senior ANC MP and one-time presidential parliamentary counsellor, to voice concern over the conduct of “smaller parties which represent a fraction of the electorate”.
Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald appealed to Mbete to retract a ruling against the rules. “You are busy trying to bully the opposition.” African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe agreed.
The ANC chief whip’s office later sharply criticised the “degeneration” after an “appropriate” and “noble” intervention by the Speaker to prevent the “blatant abuse” that unfolded.
Professor Susan Booysen of the Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management said: “Mbete has embarrassed Parliament… she has even embarrassed the ANC. It is an unbelievable situation… She does absolutely nothing that is expected of that post.”
It was a point of order from IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa calling for Mbete’s controversial ruling to be referred to another forum for discussion that finally gave ANC chief whip Stone Sizane a face-saving opening, which he picked up by supporting it.
Mbete agreed: “We are proceeding with the programme as consulted and as adopted this morning. And the content of the ruling is referred for further consultation”.
Steenhuisen fired off a final barb at Mbete, claiming “(ANC secretary-general) Gwede (Mantashe) phoned you and instructed you”.
Since the arrival of the EFF in Parliament, the ANC has struggled to deal with the dynamics of an opposition party that, according to Friedman, is pursuing headlines. For the past six months the ANC has risen to provocation and resorted to trading political barbs across the floor.
ANC chief whip’s office spokesman Moloto Mothapo said it was clear the motive for the “unwarranted and unnecessary delay” sparked by the filibuster was to frustrate the critical debate on the Nkandla ad hoc committee report. “It is tantamount to holding this Parliament and the entire South African public to ransom. We condemn this deliberate and misguided obstruction to the business of Parliament.”
The Nkandla debate got under way about four hours later – after three hours of motions and members’ statements.
Booysen said Parliament had changed with the arrival of the EFF, and the ANC’s determined protection of the president. Opposition parties had become more vociferous, but a Speaker needed to be able to handle this in a unbiased manner.
Friedman said the attention grabbing by the opposition would be manageable with a Speaker who could handle the situation, and a flexible approach from the ANC. But, “I can’t see this situation improving”.