Whose dignity is it anyway?
Imagine someone visits your home and for an apparently good reason wears a medieval suit of armour. When they leave you begin to don it in your daily battles. At first people around you are awkward but soon they get used to it and a few even emulate you. But the clunking arrangement is never going to fit and slowly but surely you become irrelevant in the 21st Century struggles.
There are many reasons why South Africans are generally not up in arms about Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Forum (EFF) stomping all over the dignity of Parliament. But one of the key reasons for the nation’s lack of outrage – a select few journalists who have to fill column space plus gabbling politicians are not the mainstream no matter what they might tell you – surely lies in the outdated nature of the institution itself.
Watching Baleka Mbete The Speaker of the National Assembly call for the help of the Serjeant-at-Arms sparked heated debate here at The Journalist as it did elsewhere. But what got us going more than the Red Coats behaving badly was how largely irrelevant Parliament has become. How can we be angry with Julius & Co when we don’t truly feel we own this institution? And how can we hold it dear as Africans when it is dominated by customs that date back to medieval England? The Speaker by the way was often in ancient times nothing more than the messenger of the King and many of them were beheaded when the going got rough. The Searjeant-at-Arms answered Baleka’s call for help in full black ceremonial gown (even a bit of shweshwe sewn into the seams would help). This role was created during the reign of Henry V. Now we have taken it on board ceremonial mace and all.
If the EFF caused a fracas in a church, a mosque or even the home of a beloved South African there would be an uproar. But who gives a scrap of biltong about people behaving badly in Parliament. The best moment during the whole scuffle was when a loyal ANC MP stood up to remind the house of the rules of Parliament. No doubt there are sections of that book she was waving about that date right back to Henry’s days.
Quick as a flash Floyd Shivambu EFF Chief Whip said: “We have dealt with the issue of rules. We have got that book as well. We know these things. Can that lady please sit down and we continue with the business of asking questions here please.”
Now whether or not you have voted for the EFF, this forceful moulding of an institution to suit our African selves in the 21st Century sets us thinking. Then the EFF insisted on a reply to their vexing question: When is the President of South Africa going to give back the people’s money he used so liberally to create his Nkandla palace?
“Can we please be provided with answers! Not hiding behind Parliament and presidents here,” says Floyd Shivambu.
“I’ve answered,” says the President Jacob Zuma.
The charade of dignity that harks back to another time and place, many prefer this to real vigorous debate, is shattered. The house is no longer ‘British’. All hell breaks loose.
“Honourable Shivambu take your seat I have not recognized you,” says the Speaker waving painted fingernails.
“He has not answered the question of when he’s paying the money,” says the EFF MP pointing a rough finger, lacking in manicure.
“I hope we are not going to make a debate on this issue, I’ve responded appropriately,” says the President.
If we don’t “make a debate” on this big issue what will it take to get us talking?
Julius Malema looks at him angrily but waits patiently for him to finish. Not all dignity is lost yet.
“Take your seat!” Baleka Mbete says again and again, “I will throw you out of the house!”
“We want the money. Just pay back the money,” says a female EFF MP.
And the dignity is gone from the battlefield. Jacob Zuma smiles broadly. Everyone is shouting and talking at once. The Serjeant-at-Arms storms out, probably to find reinforcements. Somewhere in the midst of it all officials ask the journalists to leave the Press Gallery. They refuse. Baleka Mbete tells the EFF Caucus to leave. They refuse. She suspends the house.
The Red Coats have no intention of even trying on for size that old ‘respectable’ suit of armour. The loud sound you hear is the new style politicians relegating it to the rubbish heap. And our guess is that most South Africans just could not be bothered. No matter how much money we spend on “taking Parliament to the people” this institution has a long way to go before it sits in our midst Lekgotla style.
Says Zubeida Jaffer former Political Editor for the Independent Group of newspapers:
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In 1997 I covered parliament for the first time as political editor for the Daily News. After a few months, I was asked to head a new parliamentary bureau for Independent Newspapers pulling together coverage for all 14 titles into one news operation.
I found all the rules and procedures very baffling and I wondered how members of parliament were relating to it. To me it felt stultifying. Debate in the house was tightly structured and often very boring. MP’s did not speak from the heart. They spoke from written texts that may or may not have been prepared for them. I always sensed that it would be fabulous to hear their real voices. I knew quite a few of them and felt they could not be themselves. There has to be rules that everyone agrees to but the rules must deepen debate. This often happened in committees where MP’s were more forthright and spoke with greater ease. The problem is however, that those discussions were often not televised.
As journalists we often did not bother to go to the house (watching the live broadcast instead) because it was as if most of the words spoken were irrelevant. How very different it would be if MP’s spoke from the heart and really put their point of view in their vernacular so that the communities they came from could understand them. There could be sub-titles in English only for those two hours.
I found it absurd to listen to one ANC MP after another saying more or less the same thing and then having opposition party members saying more or less something different but not as a debate. It was more a series of prepared statements read out. In this day and age those statements could just be put on a parliamentary website. What I would have loved to hear was the passions, to identify the champions of various issues and to trust that a member would put himself or herself out there.
The annual opening of parliament was wonderful because it was possible to meet so many people at one time. It was a feast for any journalist. I was just always sad that there was such pomp and splendour when a few kilometres away there was huge poverty. I always used to hope that instead of opting for a Western style democracy we could tailor it to our own needs. How wonderful it would be to showcase the traditional outfits from across the country – the Zulu traditional styles, the Tswana headgears, the Indian saris and the European styles. Twenty years after we won our democracy, surely we must begin to have the confidence to bring to the centre our own strengths and assert our different identities that together make up South Africa as a nation. It will signal to the public that everyone can be what they want to be while at the same time knitting together a sense of being one nation.
Generally I would not approve of breaking rules agreed upon by all political parties at a drop of a hat. Why then do I feel there was justice in the president being placed under pressure in parliament? And should parliament not design a practice that would allow MP’s to voice their disgruntlement? We are such a noisy nation. Why should that noisiness not be expressed in Parliament specially when many members of the public feels let down that the matter of Nkandla has been so poorly handled by the presidency.
Where was the leadership in parliament to manage a situation like this? It seemed as if the president and the chair of the speaker had lost its authority. Its no use if everyone gets carried away with being angry. They represent all of us and should be able to lead at a time of intense dispute.
To ask the media to leave was not acceptable. When parliament is in session, the media should retain its right to be present. Why then not adjourn parliament and bring parties together to work out a way forward?
The president must be aware that he is bringing the presidency into disrepute. No other president before this has embarrassed the country to this extent. While eleven million people voted for the ANC not all of those people voted for the president and surely by now he must understand that he is not a unifying factor at a time when social cohesion is desperately needed.
Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and design a set of rules better suited to our own conditions instead of adopting the British model.
We have given it 20 years and it does not give South Africans the voice they deserve.