Politics is not for “sissies”

Jack Bloom MPL

Caucus leader of the DA Gauteng Provincial Legislature

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane is not a “sissy girl”. This is what she told the Gauteng Legislature recently in her reply to the debate on her State of the Province address. She attacked the DA, saying that we should be thankful that she belonged to the ANC collective.

But if we were dealing with “a Nomvula, you will go dripping with blood out of this House, and tears, because a Nomvula is not scared of an attack”. It’s the language of a gangster rather than a premier, but perhaps appropriate to a province people sometimes call a Gangster’s Paradise. Robust debate is healthy in a democracy, but not crude threats against opponents. This is why parliaments around the world have ruled on parliamentary language. For instance, you cannot call another member a liar, but indirect insinuation is accepted. This is why Winston Churchill famously coined the phrase “terminological inexactitude”.

The Gauteng Legislature has just published a second volume of rulings by the Speaker on acceptable speech. In 1999, Mokonyane said “we will never employ anybody recommended by the Democratic Party, but we must uproot these criminals who are within the Public Service Administration who are working with the DP to derail us.” She had to withdraw this accusation after the Speaker ruled that she had not established its factual basis.

peaker Trevor Fowler ruled in response to another Mokonyane speech in 1999 that “it is necessary to maintain a degree of civility in the House in order to facilitate rational debate.” He said it was not easy to draw the line bearing in mind the value of free speech. But “derogatory references to a member’s private life or family relationships do nothing to strengthen an argument … they tend only to lower the tone of the debate”. In 2011, the Speaker ruled that it was not unparliamentary for Mokonyane to call another member “inhumane”.

Mokonyane once challenged my use of the phrase “predatory elite”, which COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has used in attacking high-level corruption. I did not have to withdraw it as the Speaker said it was not with specific reference to members in the House. All the rulings are defensible except one which bans the term “Alex Mafia” in House debate. This widely-used phrase refers to friends and associates of the ANC’s Gauteng Chairperson Paul Mashatile who have garnered lucrative provincial government contracts.

According to Speaker Lindiwe Maseko: “The privilege of freedom of speech should not be used by Members to make wild statements or insinuations”. Furthermore: “no allegation of a defamatory or incriminatory nature can be made by any member against MECs, an organisation for which an MEC is responsible for, members or parties, unless a member can provide the Speaker with substantial factual evidence, together with prima facie proof of its authenticity.” This is extremely sweeping and undercuts parliamentary privilege that protects members from legal action even if it is slanderous, defamatory or discloses things that government would prefer to be secret.

As former President FW de Klerk once said, politics is not for sissies. So while decorum is desirable as part of civilized discourse in parliament, censorship is not.

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