Decorum and behaviour take centre stage at Parliament’s budget vote

BY CHARL BOSCH - MAY 13, 2016

National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete has called for Members of Parliament to lead by example and always maintain the decorum of the House.

Speaking during Parliament’s budget vote on Thursday, Mbete said the atmosphere inside the Chamber had changed “for a variety reasons” since the fifth Parliament came into being, and that the behaviour of some MP’s had become a concern.

“The task of the Speaker is to ensure that the intensity of feeling expressed around some issues is contained within the bounds of the rules and orders without infringing on the freedom of speech that members enjoy. Our people expect all of us, as members, to make greater efforts to curb disorder and unruly behaviour,” Mbete said.

“The Presiding Officers share the concern expressed by the President at the end of his budget vote on the behaviour of some Members. We will continue to engage leaders of political parties on this vexing matter”.

Appearing in Parliament earlier this month to table the Presidency’s budget vote, President Jacob Zuma said he had become embarrassed when questioned on his travels about the ongoing disruptions in Parliament, and that more needs to be done to keep members in check.

“Members of the public don’t know that many friendships are formed across political parties. It is only when the eyes of the television cameras are trained on honourable members that the “sugar rush” tends to kick in and members disobey the chair, as they do,” Mbete said.

“Our democracy was achieved because of our collective willingness to engage each other, even on difficult issues. We can never get tired of engaging in an effort to find each other”.

Democratic Alliance (DA) Chief Whip John Steenhuisen however said it remains inconceivable that opposition parties are ruled out of order or berated by the Speaker when raising sensitive topics aimed at holding the executive accountable.

“Time and time again the courts have had to step in and remind the Presiding Officers of their responsibilities to protect the freedom of speech in this House. Yet time and time again the Presiding Officers default to muzzling members, stifling debate. What are you scared off?”

“Innocuous words like “rubbish” and “faction” are ruled un-parliamentary, and it is getting worse by the day. Last week, the leader of the opposition was prevented from referring to Mr. Zuma as “accused number one. Less than 48 hours later, the Mail and Guardian published, on its front page, a picture of Mr. Zuma with the words “accused number one” emblazoned on it,” Steenhuisen said while holding a copy of the paper.

He remarked that the African National Congress (ANC) had “subdued” the House into a “dream state completely divorced from reality” and that Parliament had been reduced to a “playground for the Executive where they are mollycoddled and shielded by a Speaker who cannot distinguish between her role as custodian of the institution and her chairmanship of the ANC”.

“I know that it cannot be an easy job to preside over a robust Parliament, But the truth is, Madam Speaker, you are falling far short of the high standards that they have set. Never before has this House been presided over with such partisan rancour,” Steenhuisen continued.

“Every time you choose the President over this Parliament. Every time you fail to protect our rights as members to freedom of speech. Every time you choose to defend the indefensible in court. Every time you choose to shield a Minister from tough questions. Surely you want to be remembered as the Speaker who defended this Parliament and not the one who destroyed it?”

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Thembinkosi Rawula took further shots at presiding officers by accusing them of turning Parliament into an “ANC debating forum”, adding that the ruling party continues to put the interest of the people below those of Zuma and the controversial Gupta family.

“Parliament is failing to defend and protect the Constitution. Madam Speaker, you are rendering Parliament worthless. How do you sleep at night when the Constitution is being undermined,” he said to objections from ANC benches.

Rawula said the party reaffirms its previous statement that Zuma does not deserve respect to be referred to as President, and that he is not welcome to appear before the National Assembly.

Insults and name-calling were continued to hurled throughout the sitting with ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu being called “Jack Daniels” by an opposition MP, while Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu was called a ginger by EFF MP’s who accused her of using derogatory language against a member.

“We have school learners as guests in the gallery today and I don’t want them to learn anything badly from their experience in Parliament,” Presiding Officer Grace Boroto warned.

ANC MP Richard Mdakane’s calls for the decorum of the House to the respected were swiftly drowned out by jeering from the opposite side of the House, with Mdakane himself then accusing the DA of being racist in relation to the party’s Deputy Chief Whip, Mike Waters, earlier berating the ruling party for hitting out whenever black voters don’t vote for them.

“You are the last one to speak about race,” Mdakane said, referring to Waters’ positing of a picture on twitter two years ago, which showed dogs queuing to urinate on a picture of Zuma, with the captions above reading “Voting Day, Make Your Mark”.

Concerns about the Parliament’s decorum were also raised by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and United Democratic Movement (UDM), with the latter’s Nqabayomzi Kwankwa calling for the “mistrust and enmity between us” to be removed.