Lechesa Tsenoli is the Deputy Speaker.

Parliament – Heated exchanges characterised an emotional debate on land distribution in Parliament on Thursday, as one MP called a question from another “stupid”.

The debate was opened by a very polite Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, who called on MPs to get their hands dirty and help people receiving land from government as part of the redistribution programme, to make productive use of the land.

“We are appealing across the party political lines let’s help us. It’s good to draw our attention to the weaknesses but it’s quite another thing to go out there dirty your hands help our people so whatever land they get it’s successfully used for production so that it can transform the quality of their lives,” Nkwinti pleaded.

It was when Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald took the platform and pointed out he was in the process of bringing to the attention of Parliament’s ethics committee continued remarks by Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema in public that his supporters should seize any piece of white-owned land, despite a charges being brought against him for his comments.

Speaking in Afrikaans, Groenewald criticised Malema for asking people to obey the Constitution and the laws of the land, and then asking them to occupy land illegally.

The EFF’s Sam Matiase intervened asking Groenewald whether he had receipts for the land to prove that it belonged to its current owners, to which the FF Plus MP replied: “I say to the honourable member if you want to see receipts go to the title deed office. Don’t ask stupid questions. The land issue is beginning to become a race issue…”

This comment saw several MPs in EFF and other opposition benches jump up and ask for a ruling against Groenewald, including Matiase.

Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli was not convinced by their arguments.

“For honourable member [Groenewald] to refer to a question as stupid is not unparliamentary. A question referred to as stupid is a reference to a question not to a person,” Tsenoli ruled.

Matiase was incensed, asking Tsenoli again to make an immediate ruling.

“Can you please instruct this white racist. You grew up in an era where Groenewald was a baas to you. You must rule on him,” he said.

Tsenoli, outraged at the comment, told Matiase to withdraw his remark and immediately booted him from the House.

“I ask you not only to withdraw but leave the chamber. The language you have used is offensive.”

Matiase stayed seated as his fellow MPs tried to get Tsenoli to change his mind.

“Don’t be scared of white people. You are scared of white people,” shouted EFF MP Ntombovuyo Mente, but in the end Tsenoli remained unimpressed, leading to Matiase being escorted from the chamber by the sergeant-at-arms.

She too was asked to withdraw her statement, replying to the deputy speaker: “I withdraw whatever but we are not stupids.”

Both the Inkatha Freedom Party and the United Democratic Movement appealed to Tsenoli to change his ruling saying it was disrespectful and insulting to use the word stupid in Parliament.

EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu brought an urgent motion for Groenewald’s remarks on land distribution to be declared “stupid” and “idiotic”, among others.

Tsenoli blocked a vote on the matter from going ahead, saying it did not affect the business of the House on the day, according to the parliamentary rule book, and he would not allow it.

The use of hand signals by MPs later also surfaced as a “point of order”.

At one stage during the debate, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was asked to withdraw a hand gesture. She had pointed at Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard, whose expulsion from her party was lifted last year, after she shared a post praising former apartheid era president PW Botha.

Mapisa-Nqukula also lifted her fist as she inferred that Kohler-Barnard had racist tendencies. DA chief whip John Steenhuisen interpreted this as a “threatening gesture”, asking for a ruling against the Minister.

She complied, replying: “I withdraw it and I was just saying Amandla.”