31 October 2014
It was like hearing Helen Suzman, that indefatigable anti-apartheid activist who was the liberal Progressive Party’s sole MP back in the then whites-only parliament, when the relatively new Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said this week: “It has ... become quite clear that President Jacob Zuma has no intention to come and appear before this house. I want to say that it is not the questions we ask in this House that embarrass the president, it is the answers he gives ... that embarrass the president.”
President Zuma and his support staff have made it clear that after the last time when he was “insulted” by the antics of the Economic Freedom Fighters (Julius Malema and his MPs had sung in unison “Pay Back the Money (for Nkandla), he would not reappear for his (quarterly) scheduled question time.
The next scheduled question time was supposed to happen this month.
Maimane’s speechwriters were clearly harking back to the days of Helen. As retiring professor Milton Shain (the Isidore and Theresa Cohen chair of Jewish Civilisation at the University of Cape Town) wrote so eloquently in the Jewish Women’s Archive, Suzman was meticulous in the preparation of her speeches. Government responses to questions in parliament were often the only source of information in the heavily censored environment of apartheid South Africa “and Helen used the parliamentary arena to good effect to reveal to South Africans the full inhumanity of the apartheid system”. Perhaps her finest retort was to an irritated apartheid era cabinet minister, Police Minister Jimmy Kruger, who shouted: “You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas,” to which she replied: “It is not the question that embarrasses South Africa - it is your answers.” The questions were about the killing of Steve Biko in police custody in 1977.
Now South Africa has gone the full circle - and perhaps beyond - of parliament failing to hold the executive to account. In the apartheid era the National Party simply obfuscated. Now President Zuma simply won’t appear because his “dignity” is being impaired by an opposition party.
Maimane appealed to Speaker Baleka Mbete to schedule a debate “to put the president in his place”. He argued that it was her constitutional obligation. Well, who would have thought that an ANC administration would go a step further than the apartheid National Party - and allow the head of state to simply by-pass parliamentary accountability?
Of course, Deputy Justice Minister John Jefferies accused the DA of posturing. He said that because it had been election year, there had been two state-of-the-nation speeches, two debates on that matter, a presidency budget vote - so that sort-of made up for bucking the rule that there were oral replies required of the president four times a year.
So that's that then. There is no need for parliament to keep the president accountable to the voters, not if his dignity is going to be impaired.
One wonders what Helen Suzman would have said about President Zuma refusing to even entertain the possibility of answering to opposition politicians in parliament.
Perhaps she would not have gone so far as to use a swear word, but who knows. She may have said: “Gosh not even (late apartheid-era President) PW Botha was as bangbroek as that!” (The insult is somehow lost in translation to "scary-pants" in English.)
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