Cape Town-150212-Members in the National Assembly hold up cell phones after signal jam. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams
Cape Town-150212-Members in the National Assembly hold up cell phones after signal jam. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Battle lines drawn for debate

By Marianne Merten and Craig Dodds Time of article published Feb 15, 2015

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Cape Town - Political parties at Parliament are digging in to do battle at this week’s debate on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address – while being engaged on another front in a tussle over the events that unfolded in the House on Thursday night.

Several opposition parties say they have tabled, for discussion at the chief whips’ forum on Wednesday, the use of a cellphone signal jammer and an inquiry into the identity of the security in plain clothes who were deployed to evict EFF MPs.

Questions are also to be raised about the presence of firearms on the floor of the National Assembly.

The forum meets behind closed doors to deal with parliamentary matters and broker political consensus.

In the open rules committee, working to finalise a review by the end of April, steps may be taken to strengthen parliamentary rules to prevent the raising of points of order and privilege under the rules for a joint sitting of the two Houses, as the EFF did during Zuma’s address.

There were ugly scenes after Speaker Baleka Mbete called in security forces to remove the EFF.

Parliament has announced an investigation by its secretary into the jamming and malfunction of the podium microphone. Presiding officers are to consider taking “appropriate action” with regard to the incidents leading up to the removal of the EFF.

Opposition parties have promised there will be a “robust” debate from 10am on Tuesday on what they say was a weak State of the Nation address.

The ANC said it would bring out its “experienced” debaters to speak on the government’s programme.

However, the pandemonium on Thursday night and the taxpayer-funded security upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla homestead are also set to be raised.

ANC deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude said at a media briefing on Friday: “If they dare do what they did (on Thursday), the same approach will be used… We’ll encourage the officers to apply their powers (to protect democracy).”

EFF leader Julius Malema said his party had done nothing contrary to the rule book.

“Tuesday, we are in Parliament. We are debating the state of nonsense and giving alternative proposals on what could be the way forward,” he told reporters on Friday.

“No amount of heavy security detail will make us not to do our job. We’ll do our job.”

The DA is to table a motion that the presiding officers – National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces chairwoman Thandi Modise – face parliamentary disciplinary proceedings before the powers and privileges committee for their handling of Thursday’s sitting.

The ANC, on the other hand, has commended the pair for their “professionalism and diligence”.

Zuma, speaking at the SABC/New Age breakfast on Friday, said Parliament “must stand up to stop the problem (of unruly members)”.

DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said the party would also “debate the real state of the nation”, including Nkandla.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi is also expected to comment on the chaos.

So is United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa, who has said that the events in the House arose through the Speaker protecting the president.

“I will address the state of the nation the way I see it. I don’t have to listen to the garbage of Zuma,” Holomisa said. “It was a flat speech. I don’t regret having gone out (of the House).”

IFP chief whip Narend Singh said: “The heat is on. We must be ready for fireworks.”

Freedom Front Plus leader Dr Pieter Mulder predicted the debate could be “personal”, given the deep tensions between the ANC and EFF.

“As long as you fight with words, but if other factors come in, there’s a problem,” he added, referring to the turn of events on Thursday.

“We need to ask about Nkandla. If he doesn’t answer, well…”

Cope’s deputy general secretary, Deidre Carter, said strong misgivings remained. “We have to be harsh on the failures of the ANC, for (they are) not defending the constitution and laws. If they are going to continue with their tactics, they can’t expect us to co-operate. But we don’t plan anything but robust engagement.”

The ANC chief whip’s spokesman, Moloto Mothapo, said there were more important matters than “public spectacle” to deal with next week.

“Our approach is not to engage in a verbal fist fight with the opposition… We have a higher responsibility. Ours is to ensure we talk to the public.”

The line of the ANC in Parliament is that the points of order and privilege raised on Thursday were out of order. Parliamentary convention meant that only the president could speak during the State of the Nation address.

However, it emerged in the run-up to Thursday that ANC efforts to include this convention in the rule book were scuppered by parliamentary procedure. The special sitting needed to adopt new rules was not feasible politically as Mbete, also the ANC national chairwoman, had declined an EFF request for a special sitting to enable Zuma to complete the question-and-answer session abandoned on August 21 amid EFF chants of “pay back the money”.

Mothapo said the rules covered any eventuality, but this did not mean they could not be tightened.

The ANC, with its 249 seats, gets the lion’s share of speaking time during the two-day debate. Zuma is due to respond on Thursday afternoon.

Political Bureau

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