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Judith February: Parliament's slippery slope

A war of words allows for only one thing; obfuscation of the facts.

After the chaotic scenes in the National Assembly last week, just about everyone has weighed in with an opinion and action to be taken.

African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has been known for shooting from the hip when under pressure. His often ill-thought-through comments have become part of the political discourse, along with Mac Maharaj's muddles.

Predictably therefore, Mantashe's was the first real salvo. His immediate call was for Parliament to be moved to a province under ANC control where the police might respond more quickly. That has to be Mantashe's most illogical response to date. One might have thought that he and the ANC would seek to ensure that President Jacob Zuma answers questions related to Nkandla directly instead of seeking to attack straw men.

But, as if that was not enough, Mantashe then held a press conference with his deputy, Jesse Duarte, alongside him and launched a scathing attack on the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela.

On the weekend the Public Protector herself weighed in on the matter to confirm her Constitutional position in a letter addressed to the president himself. In that letter, leaked to the media, Madonsela seems to have thrown down the gauntlet; either Zuma responds fully to her report within two weeks or he is in breach of the Constitution. The president has sought to pass the buck to Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko in this matter when he requested him to determine whether he is liable to pay back any money to the fiscus and what that amount should be. The Public Protector had recommended that National Treasury be the arbiter of such a determination. As Madonsela pointed out, Nhleko simply does not have the powers in law to review the Public Protector's recommendations - only a court of law may do so - or Parliament on the basis of a rational engagement.

The war of words continued with Mantashe accusing the Public Protector of 'playing in the political space' and orchestrating her letter to be sent at the same time as the EFF chaos was playing out in the House. The ANC also issued a statement condemning the leaking of the Public Protector's letter. This appears to be another red herring. Why should the public not be privy to the letter one might ask? In terms of The Public Protector Act, s 6 (4) (b), Madonsela was also well within her rights to engage with the president regarding his response or lack thereof.

Madonsela herself then took to Twitter to defend her office and spar with the ANC on social media - probably not her moment of greatest wisdom. At times like these when the ANC attack dogs are unleashed for the sole purpose of protecting Zuma, rationality rarely wins and Madonsela would be well-advised to stay out of the political mud-slinging via social media.

But things only got worse, making it clear that nothing was off limits to protect the president from accounting on Nkandla.

In a further unprecedented move ministers in the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster held a press conference saying "measures will be put in place" to ensure that last week's events are not repeated and that Parliament is "not undermined". It occurred to not one of the ministers that their conduct might be a breach of the separation of powers and that they are effectively threatening to 'police' Parliamentary debates?

It's a slippery slope we are on if Parliament, as a democratic institution, seems unwilling or unable to preside over its own processes and instead seeks to do so using displays of state power. Minister Nhleko talked about 'contingency plans' to be put in place for future incidents of this kind.

Besides the serious Constitutional blurring of lines, the response seemed completely over the top. It's hardly as if the country was facing a security threat from a handful of EFF MPs. The Speaker and Parliamentary processes ought to be sufficient to contain matters in the National Assembly. That the Speaker allowed matters to descend into chaos is a poor reflection on her insight and ability to handle heated debate. She might have foreseen this outburst and handled matters more deftly and in a less obviously partisan manner.

Duarte, meanwhile, took to television to explain how important it was to respect the dignity of Parliament. The Speaker herself has said she is considering suspension of the EFF MPs who are to explain to her in writing why this should not happen.

Concurrently, the Powers and Privileges committee will commence their investigation. This is the right course of action and MPs found to have engaged in raucous behaviour should be dealt with via the rules of Parliament and not through the police or defence force. Because once the rule of law is abandoned in favour of the riot, it's a very slippery slope.

At the same time, however, the Speaker ought to be even-handed and not shield the president from tough questions. Some might argue that Zuma has equally undermined Parliament by refusing to answer questions regarding Nkandla in a substantive manner.

Duarte then went further, singing from the Mantashe hymn sheet that the Public Protector cannot see herself "above the Constitution". It is unclear what this in fact means when the Public Protector was simply asserting her Constitutional authority. Again, in a war of words, rationality and the facts are casualties.

The issues here are crisp. The Public Protector's office is protected by the Constitution. Her recommendations are to be tabled in Parliament which will engage rationally with the Public Protector's findings and make a determination thereafter. If the president disputes the Public Protector's report or aspects of it, he ought however to take the matter on review.

It is clear, however, that the ANC and its ministers in government will do anything to further obfuscate matters so that we are collectively distracted. We should not allow deliberate misinterpretations of the Constitution to move us from the real issues here. Those too are clear: the president was found wanting in that he breached the executive code of ethics and has been ordered to pay back money to the extent that he was enriched personally.

But it seems as if the ANC is quite prepared to help us forget the minor detail of the president's wrongdoing here and instead tilt at every other imaginary windmill. What seems extraordinary is that no single minister or ANC member seems to be asking the questions of substance surrounding the Public Protector's findings which show a president clearly in breach of his Constitutional duties.

Ironically, the president finds himself en route to Russia with a small team of ministers, two of whom are, curiously, deputy minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Nomaindia Mfeketo and State Security minister David Mahlobo. Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj admitted that there would be meetings regarding possible nuclear energy deals and also that the president would 'rest' in between meetings given his heavy schedule. One might not readily think of Putin's Russia as a place to 'rest', but perhaps while the troops are battening down the hatches at home, in defence of 'Number One', others are working on a more 'restful' exit strategy for Zuma? Sense might prevail after all.

Judith February is a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

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