Parliament’s esteem has taken a few knocks over the past 18 months. Last week, its reputation sank further, owing to its somnolent response to the #FeesMustFall crisis.
How can it be that this pillar of political relevance, accountability and democracy has only scheduled an “urgent debate” on Tuesday on a crisis that has gripped the nation for two weeks?
The debate will be a farce. Not only will its relevance have been overtaken, but it will take place without Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs, who were ejected from the National Assembly and suspended for five days after agitating for Parliament to deal with the matter immediately.
Parliament’s stubborn determination to put procedure first matches the slow-footedness of an otherwise competent finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. Timing is everything in politics. To earn public respect, ministers need to be intuitive and adaptable.
They should at least acknowledge the burning issues and recognise the discontent, even if it falls on an auspicious day in their calendar – set aside for the medium-term budget policy statement – and amid the glare of ruthless international credit ratings agencies.
Yet in spite of the outpouring of anger and frustration on the streets by the youth of this country, it was business as usual at Parliament on Wednesday. Journalists covering Nene’s speech dutifully arrived after sunrise for the “lock-up” to get access to the documents before Nene’s 2pm address. Phones were locked away and all copy was embargoed until the address in the National Assembly began.
In the hefty finance documents, the omission of any solution to the tertiary funding problem was glaring. When hard copies of Nene’s 15-page speech were distributed, just one lame paragraph was devoted to the #FeesMustFall matter. The formalities of the budget lock-up proceeded like clockwork. Street protesters, who are regulars at these occasions, arrived at lunchtime, this year with #FeesMustFall paraphernalia.
Presiding officer Thoko Didiza opened the 2pm sitting of the House. She was rudely interrupted by the EFF’s appeal to postpone Nene’s speech so the House could respond to the crisis outside. Other opposition parties joined the ANC in voting against the EFF, which, although opportunistic, was in tune with the mood on the ground.
In what has become routine in the fifth Parliament, journalists anticipated covering the ejection of EFF members by the enthusiastic “white shirts”, the term used to describe parliamentary security. But the real drama erupted outside the House in the parliamentary precinct. Incredibly, Nene rattled through his speech, oblivious to the chaos outside. Not even the thunderous boom of stun grenades, which were flung around the Madiba statue, interrupted him.
It didn’t disturb President Jacob Zuma, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande or ANC and opposition MPs who remained cocooned in the House.
A missed opportunity, it will be hard to push aside these contrasting images of a parallel universe when MPs take to the podium on Tuesday to tackle the hashtag on everyone’s lips.
* This article was first published in various Media 24 titles on 25 and 26 October 2015