SONA 2015: Fracas in the House

Ben Turok writes on SONA 2015: “Let the good and wise leaders stand up!” 

Published in the Sunday Times 22/02/2015. 

I was not present in the National Assembly when the EFF was forcible removed but watched the scene on television. The pandemonium was awful, but what also struck me was the dismay on the faces of ANC M P’s. Perhaps some cheered subsequently, but at the critical moment there was no sense of triumph in those benches, just acute embarrassment and dismay. Fracas 2

It reminded me of my last months as an M P when several individual ANC Members would confide in me that things were not going well in the country. There were too many crises, too many embarrassments, and too many mistakes. I have no wish to point fingers at individual leaders, the media and the opposition have done enough of that, but there is a widespread sense of loss of direction in the country generally let alone among some members of the ANC.

The ANC remains a powerful organisation and its roots are deep in every nook and cranny of the country. And this is not merely due to good organisation over many decades. It is due to the very deep cords that the call for national liberation struck in the days of apartheid. And even those of us who were not located in the townships, but nevertheless identified with and joined in the struggle, developed that deep sense of loyalty and commitment that still binds its members together.

And so it is very painful to have to say that some leaders of the government and of the ANC are not showing the wisdom and good judgment that was the hallmark of the Luthuli, Tambo and Mandela years. It is unacceptable for a top leader of the ANC to call an opponent a cockroach. It is undignified and not even proper in street politics, nevermind in formal politics. We should not be surprised if the affected person replies in kind, and in Parliament where he is protected by privilege.

It will be argued that the ANC has been provoked beyond endurance by the EFF antics and there are indeed grounds for this view. The EFF needs to explain its actions. If the intention is to be robust, even to protest, this could be tolerated. Indeed many would hold that the ANC has become too staid, as is natural for a twenty year ruling party. There are not many new bold ideas coming from government. The State of the Nation speech was a good workmanlike Cabinet report but there was little that was directly Presidential in it.

And so a bit of liveliness in the House is not a bad thing. Many of us M P’s have raised spurious points of order or asked a question to raise a laugh or embarass someone at the podium. It is good and healthy to have cut and thrust in debate.

FracasBut one is a little uneasy about the true motives of the EFF. Are they being robust, or destructive. Their invasion of the Gauteng legislature was violent and one feels that some form of violence is never too far beneath the surface, even in the House. If this is the trend, we must fear for the stability not only of Parliament, but of  the country at large. We see the turmoil even within their own ranks.

To return to Parliament, this institution is actually extremely sensitive, despite appearances. Opponents often smile or wave at each other across the divide in order to show goodwill even after a very fractious exchange since it is so important to keep talking . The Chief Whips Forum is an essential arena for coming to terms with serious differences across party lines. In the end you all agree to work together or Parliament will collapse. Like it or not we are a multiparty parliamentary democracy even if some individuals would prefer a one party state.

This aspect of mutual tolerance is generally not reflected on television. This is because M P’s play to the gallery outside and emphasise differences on party lines. The scene is very different in the Portfolio Committees where the real work of developing legislation gets done. There all points of view are considered and differences ironed out and in the national, not party, interest.

In the Ethics Committee I chaired, we only failed to get unanimity once, and that was on a minor issue. We worked as a team and respected each other irrespective of party affiliation. Over the years, in the Finance and Trade and Industry Committees I found the same spirit of mutual tolerance. I wonder how the EFF members conduct themselves in those committees, but would not be surprised to learn that their conduct is quite appropriate.

I am frequently asked, what should be done ? Some suggest that the rules of Parliament should be tightened to cope with any disruption. But Parliament is not a court of law, where any infringement of procedures is immediately punishable, there is no contempt of court. There are indeed rules, but these are necessary guidelines rather than prescripts. It is impossible to be exact in directing political discourse. Nor is it useful to stop the occasional heckling. Many issues have been enriched by crossing swords in informal banter across the floor of the House. All this adds spice to Parliament and no imposition of rules can stop spontaneous responses.

Yet the present situation cannot continue. There is too much distrust, even bitterness, for proper consideration of legislation to happen, or for proper oversight of the Executive. The national interest and those of the public gets lost in petty skirmishes And that is the crux of it all. Parliament is not just a talk shop, it produces legislation and if that fails, there is no acceptable alternative. Imagine if the coming Budget Speech of the Minister of Finance is disrupted and the Budget is not passed.

So I would urge a series of meetings of the top leaders of all parties to reflect on the situation and find common ground to move forward. Petty issues and personalities must be put aside.  And these leaders must report to their own party members and explain what is going on, rather in the way this was done during CODESA. And the broad direction of the talks must be reported to the public.

Furthermore, since economic policy often lies at the heart of differences, we also need a national CODESA on the economy to find common ground. This is a difficult exercise because economic interests are deeply entrenched. But here again the alternative is indeed too awful.

In short, our national wellbeing is under threat from partisanship which knows no bounds. I would be the last person to propose the abandonment of long held beliefs and group interests. But we all live in a specific environment and the present one is toxic beyond anything any of use anticipated. Let the good and wise leaders stand up!

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