Cape Town - Twenty years ago Kenneth Bange started work as a parliamentary messenger. Now he is a senior staffer preparing to welcome the new crop of 400 MPs after this month’s elections.
They will be sworn in on Wednesday by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in batches of 10. By the end of the day the new MPs will have elected a new Speaker and the president of the republic for the next five years - their first contribution to the highest decision-making body in government.
Standing in the public gallery of the National Assembly, Bange made the empty room come alive for the Cape Argus as he reflected on his 20 years of pivotal, touching and heated moments in national politics.
“What people don’t know is that the MPs are highly professional. Opposition MPs don’t hate each other. They have friendly and cordial relationships outside this room.
It’s only because they all care deeply about their jobs and country that things get so heated in here. If that is all you see, of course you’d be tempted to think that Parliament is a constant battleground.”
Bange recalls watching an argument between ANC MP Johnny de Lange and Manie Schoeman of the NP descend into a fist fight in September 1998. Both members were suspended.
In an earlier interview, Luzuko Jacobs, spokesman for Parliament, recalled the incident with a giggle: “That was an isolated incident. In other parliaments around the world that sort of thing happens more regularly. I have been through Europe and Asia, and the level of disrespect and inattention when an MP takes to the podium there is often baffling. South Africans are fortunate that it’s not like that here.”
Bange said most insults and accusations were countered with wit and humour, like the time when then PAC MP Patricia de Lille accused ANC MP (and Presbyterian minister) Makhenkesi Stofile of having been a “spy” for the apartheid government.
A religious and dignified man, Stofile stood up and denied the accusation in a manner that brought the house down,” recalled Bange, and quoted Stofile’s response: “You have got your facts wrong, Miss De Lille. And if an angel were to come down from heaven and say these things, I would respond: ‘You are devious and lying, little angel.’ ”
Sittings of the National Assembly give only a glimpse of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, in committees, in MPs’ offices and the National Council of Provinces, Parliament’s other house.
Jacobs said: “The MPs, in particular, often work unbelievable hours, from dawn until late at night.
“So you can imagine how it hurts when a photo of a sleeping MP is splashed across the newspapers.”
He laughs, but, as the man responsible for Parliament’s image to the outside world, it is evident that the chuckle is not without bitterness.
“It is tough when you know that those pictures are not reflective of the dedicated work that gets done.”
But it’s not all hard work - parliamentary staff look after MPs in the on-site restaurants and bars.
Yet, for Bange, now one of Parliament’s public education practitioners, the South African public are his and Parliament’s primary “clients”.
The most moving moments of his career are not those in the National Assembly, but in his contact with ordinary South Africans during tours of Parliament or public participation workshops in rural municipalities.
He tells the Cape Argus of the reaction of many people, especially pensioners, when they enter the old House of Assembly, where for decades exclusively white MPs passed the country’s draconian apartheid laws.
“People come here and are simply overwhelmed,” he said, gesturing to the green leather benches of the room that is now the ANC caucus chamber.
“Some weep, and break down. Others say a prayer.”
As a beacon of constitutional democracy, Parliament contains its historical contradictions. A statue of Boer general and statesman Louis Botha is the first thing visitors see as they approach in Roeland Street. A flame of remembrance to the country’s fallen soldiers, on both sides of the Bush War, burns perpetually in the courtyard. The “Oranje Blanje Blou” (the old national flag) is still on display at the National Council of Provinces.
These relics appear along with the new bust of Nelson Mandela. Jacobs sees no contradictions: “They are representative of Madiba’s vision of reconciliation and coexistence. Once you and I settled our difference over the barrel of a gun. Today, we do so through public participation and parliamentary debate. This is the wonder of Parliament and South Africa.”