Cape Town – Baleka Mbete, Parliament’s boss, has a problem. The boisterous new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, has vowed to disrupt the institution’s most important occasion – unless she and President Jacob Zuma bend to their will.
The EFF wants Zuma to submit to oral questions in the house before the official opening, to finish a parliamentary question session that was abandoned last August. If this is refused, as Mbete already has done, they will disrupt Zuma’s State of the Nation address (Sona).
In a wide-ranging interview with Independent Media, Mbete seemed caught between two reactions to the EFF’s challenge to her authority.
The first is a charm offensive, reaching out to other political parties in Parliament and even other constituencies outside Parliament to isolate the EFF as the “problem child” and win buy-in from everyone else for the proposed solution.
The second is a purely securocratic response, involving a clampdown on dissent on February 12, even if it means calling armed police into the National Assembly during Sona. It’s an option that will isolate no one but the ruling party and the Speaker herself in the public’s mind, and will cast the EFF as the victims of anti-democratic intolerance.
This week it was the charm offensive that took centre stage. Religious leaders were called to Parliament to intervene, and met with MPs in an effort to defuse the tension ahead of Sona.
She says Parliament has also conceded to the EFF on the need for Zuma to return to the house and finish the aborted August 21 session.
Even though the rules allowed unfinished business to “lapse” at the end of the parliamentary session, she had made “a commitment” to ensure Zuma answers the outstanding matters when he avails himself for questions next month.
“On March 11, the President avails himself for questions. What those questions will be we don’t know. But we have made a commitment that, in addition to them, he will also answer those left over from the last sitting.
“The nature of the engagement with the Presidency is for an extension from the usual time that is given by the Presidency so that on the first occasion that is given, which is March 11, he also answers the questions asked when the session was disrupted on August 21, 2014.”
That’s the carrot. As for the stick, Mbete says: “I am saying to you this is an occasion, not just for Parliament. This is an occasion for the judiciary, for all organs of state, to display what we are about as South Africans.
“I don’t think South Africans are saying we are about undressing and demonstrating. I don’t know what we will be demonstrating on that particular occasion. I don’t know. A person like that, I don’t think will go through the gate, I doubt.”
She said she hoped the security personnel would apprehend and throw out anyone disrupting the day’s proceedings.
Mbete also warned that hecklers in the National Assembly would not be tolerated and anyone involved in such action “would be removed”.
While people have the right to protest and demonstrate, even during Sona, she said, Parliament has the necessary platforms where such unhappinesses can be raised.
“It is during the debate on Sona where MPs can complain, challenge and offend.” The Sona itself was not the occasion for such challenges, she said.
If EFF MPs make good on their threats to up the ante, in the event they are not allowed to wear their signature red helmets and overalls, it could well set the scene for a tense stand-off that will mar and overshadow Zuma’s first address to Parliament for 2015.
Opposition MPs, and the EFF in particular, have been pressing hard to hold members of the executive to account, Zuma especially, saying that he must answer their questions relating to the costs of the exorbitant “security upgrades” to his private Nkandla home.
They also bemoaned his lack of availability to come before Parliament and answer their questions. Most important among these questions is when he intends to start paying back money wasted on non-security expenditure at Nkandla, as directed by the Public Protector following her investigation.
But the ANC has circled the wagons and held the line against what the party believes is an attempt by opposition MPs to “rubbish” Zuma and “discredit” his administration.
The hostilities came to a head last year during the final sitting of Parliament in August, which eventually had to be adjourned, leaving opposition MPs irate over what they considered to be unfinished business on Zuma’s part. Opposition MPs were manhandled by police in the chaotic aftermath of that abandoned session.
In the weeks that followed, opposing sides came to blows on several occasions in the corridors of Parliament, though for its part the ANC favours the Special Investigating Unit’s report on the Nkandla debacle.
That report does not call on Zuma to repay money and shifts a large part of the burden to contractors and officials who were directly responsible for “inflating costs” on the project.
This suggests that even if Zuma takes questions on the issue next month, there will still be no commitment to pay back the money.
If this is the case, Mbete is on to a loser, because there will be no easing of tensions in Parliament during the 2015 session. Please view: