In Parliament

A date in Parliament to note in your diary

16 January 2015

There can be little doubt that Thursday February 12, 2015 is going to be a date which matriculants will have to remember for their South African history curriculum in years to come. It will be like 2 February 1990 when then President FW de Klerk announced the end of apartheid, the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SA Communist Party.

It will be the day when horror of all horrors, the president will be interrupted during his  State of the Nation speech by the Economic Freedom Fighters who will ask him whether he will take questions on Nkandla and whether he would pay the money back. The stage has already been set for another invasion of the national assembly floor by riot police – this time witnessed by the overdressed visitors and the diplomatic corps.

City Press reported that Julius Malema had placed Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete’s head on the block. His party had demanded that, in order to avoid a confrontation at the normally well-mannered opening of parliament, a special sitting should be held in advance of the opening to put questions to President Jacob Zuma. This was refused last week.

The secretary of the national assembly Masibulele Xaso conceded at a media workshop that the joint rules of Parliament were silent on the eventuality of MPs putting questions to the president during his address. But the rules committee had decided that such impertinence on the EFF’s part would not be tolerated.

This is, of course, just what the EFF wants. Having proved in previous demonstrations that breaking the conventions of parliament – many of which are simply ridiculous, outdated or archaic -  produces a kind of spellbinding  public fascination and media fixation, the party knows it is on to a good thing. Disruption has proved to be a win-win tactic for the party, which is already claiming to be the de facto official opposition rather than the de jure one. Last August – the 21st – EFF MPs chanted in unison “pay back the money” – referring to the R250 million or so of state funds mis-spent on the President's rural compound. Malema and 19 of his 25 MPs were suspended from parliament for two to four weeks in December. The nation was transfixed in mid-November when EFF MP Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela called the president “a thief and a criminal”. Mbete called in riot police and EFF MPs – joined by some DA MPs – skopped each other. Mashabela was dragged out of the house. Police had not been in a South African parliamentary chamber since 1966 when apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was stabbed. On December 23, Judge Dennis Davis granted a temporary interdict in the Western Cape High Court preventing Mbete from imposing suspension sanctions on 20 MPs (six EFF MPs were suspended for 30 days without pay, six for 14 days without pay and eight were ordered to apologise to parliament and fined two week’s pay).

Xaso explained that while there were no rules dealing with questions to the president, a joint sitting of the national council of provinces and the national assembly was an extraordinary event called in terms of the constitution. The president was then able to deliver the State-of-the-Nation address. No other business can be dealt with at such a sitting. The Speaker, who will preside at the opening joint sitting, would invoke rule 13 – perhaps it should be dubbed the ‘unlucky’ rule – of the joint rules which state that no MP may speak during such a sitting unless given permission by the presiding officer (Mbete) at the meeting – or prior to the meeting. But Mbete has refused to give Malema permission to raise his questions at another forum or, indeed, at this joint sitting. Mbete wrote to Malema urging the EFF not to raise questions during the address. Only points of order will be entertained on February 12 but these can only refer to a point of procedure. The Speaker can order an MP showing contempt for the rules to leave the chamber immediately.

So, as they say in Afrikaans, die poppe gaan dans (loosely translated: the dolls will prance). Be sure to tune in to the normally achingly dull parliamentary channel on February 12 at 7pm. What a spectacle it is likely to be.


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