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South Africa – The Mad Hatter Parliament

It remains to be seen how long Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s deal with opposition parties to restore the dignity of Parliament will last. While the chaotic scenes of Thursday, November 13, were certainly unwelcome and sent the wrong message, they were by no means unique. Over the past 24 months, we have seen scenes of fisticuffs, chair throwing, umbrella bashing, hair pulling, and general mayhem in the legislatures of South Korea, Italy, Greece, Ukraine, Colombia, Hungary and Thailand (and possibly some we missed), so let’s get a grip – this is not the end of democracy as we know it. And while Parliament may have been a little more cordial after Mr Ramaphosa’s interventions on Tuesday, November 18, the same could not be said for the Gauteng legislature, which on the same day erupted into chaos as members from the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) and African National Congress (ANC) traded insults, vulgarities, allegations, and counter allegations using age-restricted language and bringing the business of governing to a standstill. It is, of course, not the first time the Gauteng legislature has suffered such indignities – the riot police had been called in to restore order on previous occasions.

While Mr Ramaphosa offered the sweetener of holding the EFF suspensions from Parliament in abeyance (one wonders on what authority that executive decision was made), it remains clear that the EFF and (in a more orderly manner) the Democratic Alliance (DA) and others are not going to give the ANC the soft ride it has enjoyed for some two decades in a Parliament that has become a rubber stamp. The same applies to provincial legislatures and, after fresh elections, perhaps to local authorities as well. There is nothing wrong with the opposition giving the ruling party a tough time – it did so last week with a clever and well coordinated filibuster that lasted over three hours and fell well within the rules and practices of a democratic legislature. That is the way to go – there are ways and means of creating pressure and expressing dissatisfaction without shouting down the president, as entertaining as that was.

The problem with the rules and playing by them in Parliament has one major shortcoming – the current Speaker who has one set of rules for the opposition and another for the ANC. Apart from the EFF (which has lately learnt some parliamentary manners and is adapting its strategy to operate within the protocols), Speaker Baleka Mbete is the other major stumbling block to order in the National Assembly. She displays the characteristics of an unrepentant Stalinist who believes loyalty to the party is more important than anything else, including order, balance, and even truth. Ms Mbete’s conduct is unbecoming a Speaker and her clear bias and irritation with the concept of opposition politics should disqualify her from any position where balance and objectivity are absolute prerequisites. Last week, Ms Baleka ignored several calls by the opposition parties in Parliament to reinstate an order paper and agenda she had unilaterally attempted to alter. The ANC Chief Whip ordered the Speaker to reinstate the order paper and agenda and she promptly did so – this after ignoring the opposition. Ignore the opposition but immediately bow to the ANC – enough said, please resign.

WHY DO WE CARE? Robust and confrontational politics are not by definition undemocratic. In fact, the opposite – that without such debate there is no real democracy – may be true. But there are rules to be followed, procedures to abide by, and plenty of legitimate ways to use the rules to make a point and irritate the ruling party. However, if the new parties (such as the EFF) must learn these rules and how to play the game, then the playing field must be level, and with Ms Mbete in the chair it is not. The Speaker must be unbiased, well informed, just, and a committed democrat open to opposing views and criticism. The incumbent is none of those things.

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