JUDITH FEBRUARY: We're tired of watching the parliamentary circus
“I have never been to Switzerland. My husband has never been to Switzerland. We went to Geneva and New York."
Almost as soon as the words rolled off the lips of Communications Minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, they went viral on social media.
Does Ndabeni-Abrahams really not know that Geneva is in Switzerland? She apologised later and said she meant France.
"During a question that was asked relating to my September 2019 trip to Geneva in Switzerland, I erroneously referred to Switzerland instead of France. I profusely apologise for this, as I meant to say ‘we had not been to France’ in this particular instance.”
Of course she did.
While the incident provided a laugh, it is profoundly depressing and probably sums up why many South Africans are feeling rather despondent.
These sorts of incidents, frivolous as they may seem tell us everything we need to know about the mixed bag that Ramaphosa’s Cabinet is.
Ndabeni-Abrahams follows a long line of senior ANC members in public life who simply cause embarrassment either by their outbursts, ignorance, incompetence or corruption.
We well recall former Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane’s ‘hole in the head’ interview and then Baleka Mbete’s unspeakable ramble on Al Jazeera in October last year.
It leads to the inevitable question about the culture of mediocrity that pervades so much of South African public life.
Where are the brightest and best that are able represent us? It inspires no confidence, for instance, that Nomaindia Mfeketo, a recycled ANC politician of limited skill, is being sent to Washington DC as our country’s ambassador.
There is a plethora of examples such as this.
Ndabeni-Abrahams has to answer to the allegations that she flew to Switzerland on taxpayers’ money to celebrate her wedding anniversary. She has hardly done so with any clarity, only a dose of arrogance. If she does not, then the President should compel her to do so.
We can do better. The question is whether the ANC can do better?
President Ramaphosa was keen to show that the party could when he replied to the post-Sona debate in the House on Thursday.
It had been a ‘debate’ of sorts. The DA’s interim leader, John Steenhuisen, left nothing unsaid as he slammed Ramaphosa for not having 'the guts’ to be the reformer he promised he would be. "You blew it!" Steenhuisen cried as he referred to the crisis of unemployment and South Africa’s low growth trajectory.
Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamolo delivered a thought-provoking speech, as did the DA’s Geordin Hill-Lewis.
At least these three confined themselves to the business of the House and that was discussing the actual speech made by Ramaphosa.
Good sense has been in short supply for the past week as Ramaphosa’s address was hobbled for 90 minutes by tiresome EFF points of order while a tired citizenry watched the passing show.
During the Sona debate, however, the ANC’s Boy Mamabolo had other less constructive ideas. Mamabolo and EFF leader Julius Malema traded insults about gender-based violence. They are best not repeated, save to say that yet again the dignity of the ‘People’s Parliament’ was eroded and the session on Wednesday descended into familiar chaos.
ANC chief whip, Pemmy Majodina, has clearly already lost the plot – either she is blissfully unaware of the rules or does not have the ability to rein in errant MPs when they speak out of turn - or both.
The lack of discipline displayed by Mamabolo was startling, as was the line of questioning which was devoid of rationality and were rather simple cheap politicking.
Malema’s conduct was equally unbecoming. It is quite clear that Malema and some on the ANC benches have no interest in democratic deliberation and debate as Malema shouted out, "No one is going to tell me what to do. I’m in charge. That is why these fools are running around … There’s nothing you can do: in this house, I’m in charge".
This felt like a toddler’s rant from Malema - a small man who, given how much he knows about the inner workings of the ANC and its scandals, tosses allegations about hoping one of them will stick.
The EFF, racked with in-fighting of its own, Malema and others facing serious allegations of corruption related to VBS Bank, predictably know only the politics of spectacle and disruption. Their cries about ‘white monopoly capital’ sound more tired than ever as fresh, innovative policy ideas elude them.
Parliament, like much of our country, is being subsumed by the tyranny of the minority. It is the minority EFF - a party which garnered 10.75% of the vote - that held Parliament hostage last Thursday evening, after all.
Equally, Mamabolo ought not to have been allowed to raise the gender-based violence issue during the reply to Sona. It had no place in the debate and he was allowed to run on inappropriately. It opened the door for Malema to run amok and again capture the session with rants. It also shone a light - if one is needed - on the poor calibre of ANC members sent to Parliament.
President Ramaphosa, however, returned some welcome decorum to the House during his own reply. He started by very specifically pointing all MPs to the preamble to our Constitution and to how we all ought to make constructive attempts to make sense of our past and build the future.
It was a timely reminder to move away from the chaos that had been allowed to mar his Sona as Malema made FW de Klerk’s presence and his comments about apartheid, the centre point of his disruption. Ramaphosa’s call to build a new society that was the antithesis of what had gone before was equally apposite.
At the beginning and the end of his speech, he made a call against trivialising gender-based violence and scoring cheap political points. It was a calm and dignified response to Mamabolo and Malema’s recklessness. In fact, Ramaphosa berated both Malema and his own colleague, Mamabolo, for their conduct.
Ramaphosa then also carefully apologised to Malema on behalf of his party, thus taking both Malema and Mamabolo by surprise. It was a dressing down of sorts to a part of Ramaphosa’s own caucus. One could almost feel the deflation and the discomfort. There would have been many watching who welcomed Ramaphosa’s comments.
As Ramaphosa ended his reply, Malema rose yet again to repeat the point he had made during the debate. By that time, the energy had been sapped out of the issue and Chair of the National Council of Provinces, Amos Masondo, closed the session.
The relief was palpable. The EFF and Malema released a statement of apology to Ramaphosa for the allegations of gender-based violence made against him, soon afterwards.
One wonders what Malema and Mambolo thought they stood to gain from this disruptive conduct? It was immature, undignified and showed the limits of their ability to engage critically on Sona - or any issue for that matter. It was shameful.
The Powers and Privileges Committee needs to act urgently now that it has been set up.
It is time for the presiding officers to work to restore the dignity of the House. One does not specifically need to amend the Powers and Privileges Act, but rather to enforce the rules that exist with a firm hand.
If they do not act fast, Parliament itself will be unfit for purpose.
South Africans really are tired of watching the parliamentary circus. The work of the people in the People’s House is far too important for a small intolerant minority to undermine it.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february