South Africa: Which side will have the final word?

THE unseemly exchanges between the opposition and African National Congress in the National Assembly last week, which culminated in the “F**k you” statement, have raised a number of issues.  Not the least of them is what constitutes robust debate.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the exchanges question the impartiality of presiding officers and the erosion of freedom of speech through biased rulings from the chair.

SA is not unusual in having robust exchanges in Parliament. Indeed, the benches in Britain’s House of Commons are said to be deliberately set at a little more than two sword- lengths apart, some legislatures have had ushers with whips while others have the speaker protected by bulletproof glass. And most modern legislatures have a code to determine what is unparliamentary or not.

The swearwords uttered by Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Dianne Kohler Barnard were clearly unacceptable and “unparliamentary” and way beyond any concept of freedom of speech in the house.
Her words put the DA on the defensive from their usual position where they claim ed the moral high ground. At issue had been what all opposition parties felt was a partisan ruling by deputy speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo that Congress of the People (COPE) MP Mluleki George had accused President Jacob Zuma of creating lawlessness.

He refused to withdraw his remarks and was ordered from the chamber. After Kohler Barnard’s outburst the DA moved to pre- empt any action by the speaker, Max Sisulu, and in an unprecedented move suspended their own MP for five parliamentary days. When Sisulu later ruled, he also suspended Kohler Barnard for five days.

What DA chief whip Ian Davidson had to say was instructive: “We wish to distinguish our reaction to her transgression from that of the ruling party, which repeatedly endorses, defends and obfuscates about the unparliamentary conduct of its own members. “The DA believes in accountability and consequences, and that this action demonstrates our commitment to those principles. We challenge the ruling party to follow suit.

“And here it is worth setting out some context to incident. Consider that the DA has been accused of being ‘treasonous’, a crime punishable by death in many countries; that labour brokers have been labelled ‘slave traders’ and ‘human traffickers’; that (former DA leader) Tony Leon has been maliciously accused of being ‘a lance-corporal in a helicopter above the streets of Soweto, firing tear gas and bullets at the harmless students’ and, in the Western Cape legislature, it was even suggested that Leon’s wife was found for him by the ‘Israeli secret service’. None of these statements — libellous, racist, and defamatory — were met with any serious condemnation by the ruling party and certainly no decisive action.”

It is worth looking at what George said. “It is very clear from the state of the nation address that with President Zuma at the helm the people of SA are leaderless. It is very unfortunate this happened when we celebrate president Mandela. President Mandela was the custodian of high moral values and set a very good example as the head of the republic.”

“It is very disturbing that the state of the nation address is extremely quiet about this important leadership quality. It appears that the nation is deliberately led to lawlessness, with absolutely no morals and respect for its people.”

There was a point of order and Mfeketo agreed to study the record of the debate and rule the next day. When she did, using rule 63 of the parliamentary code, which says a member may not impugn the integrity of another, she said George had done this to the president and ordered him to withdraw. All opposition parties felt the ruling was incorrect and represented a dangerous interference with freedom of speech .

At the time, Davidson tried numerous times to take a point of order to discuss the ruling. Mfeketo refused to allow any discussion and the upshot was that the COPE and DA caucuses left the house. It was frustration at this ruling that caused Kohler Barnard’s outburst.

The DA is going to bring a vote of no confidence in Mfeketo. While this might seem petty, particularly because they will surely lose if it goes to the vote, the party believes it is necessary to debate the correctness of Mfeketo’s decision .

Source: www.sundaytimes.co.za, 20100224

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