Cape Town - The Economic Freedom Fighters on Monday secured legal agreement from Speaker Baleka Mbete that she would not move immediately to suspend its MPs from Parliament for staging a noisy protest demanding the president repay costs on his Nkandla home.
The EFF welcomed Mbete's capitulation, which followed threats from the party to launch a high court challenge, but it is not a final reprieve as a parliamentary committee will still investigate its members' actions.
“The EFF welcomes this as one of the first vindications of its position and protest in Parliament demanding that Jacob Zuma pays back the money unduly spent in Nkandla,” said spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.
“EFF maintains that none of its MPs acted outside the rules of Parliament, and that it will proceed to robustly demand answers from the executive without any fear or favour.”
However, Mbete's instructions to Parliament's powers and privileges committee to probe the matter and report back to her with suggested sanctions as a matter of urgency still stand.
Committee chairman Leshile Mashile announced to members in a meeting that lawyers for the EFF and the Speaker had said she would abandon plans to ask the National Assembly on Tuesday to suspend 20 of the party's members for up to a fortnight.
But he circulated a letter from Mbete to members referring them to audio and video footage and Hansard records of the incident, the first of its magnitude in the post-apartheid legislature.
It instructs them “to deal with this as a matter of the greatest urgency and submit findings at the soonest opportunity”.
This drew vehement opposition from EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu, who said his party's lawyers had prevailed in the standoff with Mbete because, in terms of the Constitution and the Powers and Privileges Act, she had no grounds for suspending them.
Therefore, any attempt to do so by the committee would be doomed, he argued.
“She knew she was going to lose this case in court as a reality,” he said.
“Get your legal representatives to appraise yourselves.”
But the ANC's Richard Mdakane said this was not the case, and that Mbete had in fact withdrawn to be fair and allow the committee to do its work without a concurrent process under way..
Parliamentary legal adviser Zuraya Adhikarie explained that the process put in motion by Mbete was “completely gone, it is no more”, but that her orders to the committee stood.
However, the EFF with help from other opposition parties, successfully argued that the initiator - who would present the evidence and the case before the committee - should not be a member of the National Assembly or the ruling party.
“You cannot have the ANC prosecute, convict and sentence,” Shivambu said, adding that the ruling party in Parliament took its orders from Luthuli House and could not be trusted to treat a political opponent fairly.
Mashile agreed that he would take this proposal back to Parliament and return to the committee within at most two days with names of suitable candidates.
“Then members will have about five days before we have our first sitting,” he added.
The committee had been scheduled to meet behind closed doors, but finally allowed journalists to attend, without a formal explanation for the change of heart.
On August 21, EFF MPs chanted “pay back the money” after party leader Julius Malema asked Zuma when he would heed Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendation that he repay state funds spent on features like a swimming pool at his private Nkandla homestead.
Mbete subsequently adjourned the sitting and threatened to have them physically removed from the House.
In the legal letters to Mbete, the EFF said she had failed to name them when she asked members who were “not serious” to leave the chamber.
This did not apply to them, Malema argued, because they were indeed serious about holding the president to account for spending R246 million of public money on Nkandla. - Sapa