Last week, the country watched in awe and wonderment as the now-infamous exchange between the EFF and the speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete brought into sharp focus the conventions (and trivialities?) of parliamentary protocol. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) supposedly impeded parliamentary protocol and violated a number of points of order when they repeatedly challenged President Jacob Zuma to account for whether or not he will “pay back the money,” as recommended by public protector, Thuli Madonsela in her Secure in Comfort on the upgrades to his Nkandla homestead. This was during the first Presidential Q&A session since the elections. When the session was adjourned by the speaker of parliament and MP’s were asked to leave the house, EFF members staged a sit-in, promising not to leave until Jacob Zuma had answered their question. In this question and answer session, like in past years, members of the house are given the opportunity – as a precursor to more parliamentary debate about the executive – to pose any question to the president of the nation. This however did not turn out the way anyone expected.
For the longest time, the oddest ingredient of the stew of South African parliamentary undertaking has been pomp, ceremony and the polite observation of protocol. Since 1994, imho, the most marked difference between our democratic parliament and that of the pre-1994 government has been praise poets, colourful dresses and decorum. But what it possesses in entertainment value and valour it may lack in constructive criticism.
A pertinent, still fresh and highly contentious issue was raised in the question session in parliament last week. Now this is not another Nkandla piece but for me last week was the first time the Nkandla issue – which has raised protest and ire in academic circles, the media and the general public – was not quickly nor easily dismissed by the president in parliament. Has the protest now come to parliament? And to what do we owe this? We owe it to the EFF’s outright refusal to adhere to the Speaker of Parliament’s calls to order. Malema famously shouted’ “…these points of order are the ones you are hiding behind.”
This past weekend I got involved in a debate with a friend of mine, where he contended that this will set a bad precedent for political discourse in South Africa, and that we could see this sort of disruptive behaviour filter down to community meetings and smaller social/legal forums in future. Senior ANC politicians, in fact, have posited that the disruption of parliament and of parliamentary protocols is tantamount to anarchy and counter productive. Some believe the lack of respect shown by the EFF – as perceived by the ANC – is counter revolutionary.
The opposing contention, which I hold, is that the EFF are challenging the way debate is conducted in parliament. And for a country as young as SA, is that such a bad thing?
Mirroring the sentiments of many a pundit and ordinary South African, Sisonke Msimang tweeted that “the militancy of the [ANC] ministers against the EFF is in stark contrast to their wimpiness when dealing with Zuma.”
So my argument is, if this is anarchic, is it not a necessary evil?
Currently parliament is not serving as a place for constructive, rigorous, robust debate. During apartheid, the timidity of parliament allowed for the NP government to tame anti-apartheid sentiment in the House and so parly was a relatively lame tool in the fight against apartheid. The more “militant” protests, awareness-raising campaigns and conscientisation that happen outside the South Africa parliament is what truly swung the pendulum. What’s changed in parliamentary process today? Is parliament now better structured to ensure it is never used as a party political tool and that it a place in which elected representative are held duly accountable on all things they oversee?
In a country that still wrestles with inequality, non-accountability and very little transparency, we need to decide whether the need for rigorous supersedes the need for the observation of protocols that are meant to harness debate.
Our system of government threatens to fail us if our parliamentarians act as if the struggle is over. The ability to engage in accountable and rational debate that the struggle for political freedom brings with it must drive us to continue on our upward trajectory in other spheres of the social spectrum. As a young free country, we need to constantly evaluate the people we elect into office; and of course, the rules & regulations by which they govern, debate and legislate.