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Monday, November 24, 2014

The dirty politics across the road from the sex shop

Tense standoff between police and EFF members August 21 
 In the beginning, the fifth parliament took shape slowly and predictably, except for a minor distraction - the opening of an adult sex shop across the road. 
After the May elections, the ANC had been returned to power with a leaner, but still comfortable majority of 62% of the vote, its vexed president Jacob Zuma in place for a second term. The DA had a chunkier minority voice with 22% of the vote.
The wildcard was the arrival of the flamboyant, in-your-face Economic Freedom Fighters. However, with 6% of support, the jury was out on how much clout Julius Malema and his sidekicks could wield on the parliamentary precinct.
So when the garish red and yellow signage popped up between two cafes on Plein St in the early days, the ANC had time to make a noise. The ruling party  objected that the sex shop had no right to be situated outside Parliament as it “does not augur well for the integrity and standing of such a constitutional body”.
But the ANC quickly abandoned the trivial battle against the shop across the road as it got consumed by the dirty business that has rocked parliament – and the country - since August 21. The trigger, of course, has been the elephant in the room – the president of the country. And the EFF shook things up with a new method of up-yours agitation which has transformed the business of parliament.
In the past six months, the fifth parliament notched up a string of firsts. On August 21, the EFF brought the house to a shutdown after a standoff with the speaker, Baleka Mbete, over its spirited #paybackthemoney protest.
On 17 September the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu showed his middle finger at deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. 
On November 13, armed riot police burst into the chamber to remove a recalcitrant EFF member Reneilwe Mashabela who had refused to withdraw a comment that Zuma was a thief.
The EFF stage a sit-in at parliament on August 21
On Thursday night, the house had what is believed to be its longest session  since 1994 – from 2pm to 4am – though this included a 6 hour adjournment while parties tried to figure a way forward after the ANC was accused of unilaterally altering the order of the parliamentary programme.
In what is surely another first, Jan Pierewiet and Jingle Bells were sung in the house while DA politicians amused themselves during the extended wait.
In the past few weeks, South Africans who were suddenly hooked on the parliamentary TV channel  (when it wasn’t rudely cut)  became familiar with the term filibuster as the DA adopted US-style delaying tactics.
When deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa stepped in to broker a truce, one would have thought that exhaustion – if nothing else – would have got parties to see it through. Though there are questions about Ramaphosa imposing a truce on parliament, it seemed like a win-win interim plan to bring the temperature down. The deal would restore order and decorum to the house, parliamentary rules would be applied fairly and executive accountability (which includes Zuma) would be enforced.
But it was shattered within a day. Attempts to revive it are under way this week.
Now as the third term draws to a close, the fifth parliament is unpredictable, its integrity undermined (and it has nothing to do with the shop across the road).  But judging from the vibe in the corridors of parliament lateon Thursday night, many MPs are looking for a way from the impasse. Even inside the house after a 6-hour standoff, there was an air of camaraderie as parties slugged it out on normal parliamentary matters till 4am.
And here lies the hope amid the mud bath. MPs are in it together, and equally dependent on each other. That
ANC supporters fill the upstairs gallery in support of Jacob Zuma
is what multiparty democracy is about - even when it gets downright dirty. 

* This article first appeared in Beeld.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parle-monium: the day the riot police moved in on parliament

The morning after riot police stormed the National Assembly to forcibly remove a recalcitrant EFF MP, I joked on twitter that I was considering wearing a flak jacket and takkies to work.
The unprecedented display of force has sent shockwaves through parliament and the country, with threats by the opposition to seek recourse in the courts.
After 10pm on Thursday, members of the Public Order Policing unit - wearing protective gear from head to toe - pushed and shoved opposition MPs in the house.  The MPs, who had endured a marathon sitting since 2pm, had intervened as police tried to remove the EFF’s Reneilwe Mashabele, who, dressed in a domestic worker uniform, insisted that President Jacob Zuma was a thief.  As parliament descended into chaos, the live parliamentary TV feed was cut.
 The warning signs were in fact evident earlier that day, with Public Order Policing unit vans lined up on the precinct outside.
There must be a degree of sympathy for presiding officers who have been battling acts of extreme rudeness lately - all of it triggered by the #paybackthemoney Nkandla saga. But as a reason to haul in the riot squad, it is a shocking disgrace and unbelievably paranoid.
A visual timeline of the drama as it unfolded, Die Burger
It makes it harder now to laugh off DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s warning earlier this week – before pandemonium broke out - that there were “rumbling plans to militarise our parliamentary precinct”.
The cracks in South Africa’s hard-fought democratic parliament have been creeping up - insidiously – in the 5th parliament.
There was the incident of August 21 – when police also moved on to parliament. After a tense stand-off, they withdrew from using force to remove protesting EFF MPs.  Again, the media were ordered to leave (many refused) and the TV feed was cut.
In the National Council of Provinces a few weeks ago, I was among a number of journalists refused re-entry to the upstairs press gallery while President Jacob Zuma was delivering his 50-minute speech on 20 years of democracy. I was confronted not by parliamentary security, but, it is believed, a member of the Presidential Protection Unit who had taken it upon himself to rule over the house.  
Although it was reassuring that parliament issued an unreserved apology and an undertaking to investigate as journalists always have free access to enter and exit the gallery, it was chilling to witness  parliamentary officials, whom I had called on to assist, being brusquely over-ruled by the bully-boy security official.
There are other worrying tendencies. The increasing secrecy and attempts at blocking journalists from accessing reports emanating from portfolio committees – the Nkandla ad hoc committee (of course) a case in point. Parliamentary security has tightened, signing-in bureaucracy has been increased, and more police officers have been deployed to parliament.
There are also some trivial incidents. This week, a reporter who has covered parliament for four years was ordered to not drink water – from a parliament-labelled bottle nogal - while sitting in the press gallery upstairs. Minutes later, her colleague was also given an order - to not stand in the gallery (even though he was in nobody’s way). 
When I moved into media offices at the parliamentary precinct in May, I walked through the entrance of parliament thinking what a privilege it was to be based at such a deeply-loved institution that has been the symbol of the country’s liberation and democratic principles.
I didn’t feel quite the same way when I walked through the gate on Friday morning.
* A version of this article first appeared in City Press and Rapport on 16 November 2014