Parliament - Following a set of verbal exchanges reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, disagreement over the meaning of the word “nonsense” saw an MP ordered out of the National Assembly on Thursday.
Speaking after a statement by Acting Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Lechesa Tsenoli on the recent land audit report, Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald told him he was talking nonsense.
“I want to say to the Honourable Minister, you came to this podium and you spoke a load of nonsense. You said nothing. You're supposed to make a statement on the land audit, and all you came here to say is we're busy with the land audit.”
Prompted by an outcry from ruling party members, Deputy Speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo told him he could not use the word.
“Honourable, Groenewald, even if it's not parliamentary, nonsense is nonsense. You can't say in this Parliament the minister come and speaks nonsense.”
Groenewald responded: “Thank you Deputy Speaker, but if nonsense is nonsense, then the minister is speaking nonsense, and I can't say something if he speaks nonsense. Nonsense is nonsense.”
At this point, amid loud jeers and heckling across the House, Inkatha Freedom Party MP Koos van der Merwe sought to lighten the mood.
On a point of order, he asked Mfeketo: “If the Honourable Member can't say nonsense, can he say balderdash?”
After the laughter had subsided, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor rose to remind MPs they should speak to each other with respect.
“To refer to the minister as having spoken nonsense is offensive language. It is not acceptable in this House,” she said.
Democratic Alliance Chief Whip Watty Watson told Mfeketo he thought the problem was with the English language.
“What we have here is a problem with the English language. Nonsense means nonsensical, 1/8it 3/8 means what the minister is saying does not make sense. That is not derogatory,” he told her.
But Mfeketo was adamant.
“Honourable Groenewald, it is offensive language... You can say that in a shebeen, but this is not a shebeen, it is a chamber.”
Groenewald did not agree, declaring emphatically: “If a minister comes here and talks sense, I have respect for that minister. But if a minister comes here and talks nonsense, I don't have respect for that minister. And I will not withdraw.”
At this point, Mfeketo said she thought the word nonsense was in fact unparliamentary, and told Groenewald he must withdraw it.
“While the word nonsense was maybe in the past not ruled unparliamentary, really, it is offensive... I have ruled and I expect the members to respect my ruling. And I have asked you to withdraw that word.”
Groenewald took refuge in some mother-tongue idiom.
“Ek is nie Engelssprekend, en my moedertaal is Afrikaans. Wat ek gese het... is die (minister) praat twak - sy twak is nat! Want hy weet nie waaroor hy praat nie! (I am not an English-speaker, and my mother tongue is Afrikaans. What I said... is the minister is talking nonsense! He does not know what he is talking about!)”
He then told Mfeketo he would not withdraw the word, and she ordered him out of the House.
Groenewald told her: “Honourable Deputy Speaker, I must say that I've been more than 20 years in this House, and what I can't understand is that you say it's not unparliamentary to use the word, but you ask me to withdraw it. I will not withdraw it, and I will leave the chamber.”
As he walked off the podium and out of the House, he was joined by a large contingent of DA MPs, as well as those of his own party.
Thursday is the last scheduled sitting day of the House ahead of the May 7 elections.