“In Soccer, if you don’t listen to the referee, there can be no game,” says the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Lechesa Tsenoli, defending the actions of officials in the latest fracas. The Journalist Publisher Zubeida Jaffer nailed him down between rounds in the slanging match that rages outside and inside the House these days.
ZJ: I’ve looked through the press releases that came from parliament and I’ve read through some of the things that have been said. I thought it would be very helpful for us to get an insiders view of these disturbing developments. Were there discussions about any other ways to deal with the EFF’s threats?
LT: We held meetings at parliament with all the parties where it was pointed out to them how things are done. The State of the Nation Address does not include questions because everyone understands the questions come the following week.
Its a very open political space in which you can say anything and ask anything even if the president did not mention it in his speech. We hoped that we could persuade all members of parliament to appreciate that. The EFF was the only party who refused to give an undertaking to respect this process.
We have to strengthen the capacity of the protection services themselves to do what is required … because it is untenable for any member of parliament to defy the authority of the chair. This is the first rule of any parliament. All the others are really secondary to that first one. Its’ like a complete breakdown and not respecting the rules of the referee. We don’t have a game consequently and that is the seriousness of the problem.
What complicated the matter is that in the structures of parliament we have the chief whips forum and the programming committee, where a chief whip has already told other whips that, ‘guys this is what I think the programme of the day, week or month should be like. Do you agree?’
Normally, they agree. So when they get to the programming committee, chaired by The Speaker, it is not to debate. This takes roughly 30 minutes.
What began to happen was that these guys did not only say it outside of the house, in public spaces, that they won’t obey the rules, they also said it at meetings as well that they are not going to allow themselves to be told what to do inside the house. This they did in front of the media because programming meetings are open and this defiance was done frequently.
ZJ: The times when that happened, what was the conclusion? How did you handle it? Like say in the programme committee? Have they got a whip?
LT: Yeah, Floyd Tshivambu is their whip.
ZJ: Doesn’t he have to agree how it works?
LT: Yes, well. This is what is expected. Things are done by consensus.
ZJ: And, did they?
LT: No, they didn’t. They made it very clear that they will not agree. They sent us a letter. (The letter is published elsewhere on this page) Firstly, they say they can’t be held to conventions. All parliaments have laws rules, we’ve got laws and we’ve got practices which guide the conduct of the house which are part of induction that guide you get as an MP. It’s not just rules but conventions. The manner in which they are cloaking their defiance is that we are protecting the president – that we don’t want him to answer the question.
ZJ: Are you protecting the president?
LT: We agree that a date must be set for him to do that. He has given us a date of 11 March 2015. All the parties know that and want it to happen.
Even if you’re unhappy with the answer you can’t impose the kind of answer you want on the person you’re asking. It’s not my job as presiding officer to force anyone to give a particular answer to a question. This is a political issue and you need to deal with it in a political manner. You can tell your Chief Whip that the president did not answer your questions.
And you have a recourse in the house… to say their Chief whip can go and say, in the course of the questions, the president did not answer my question, I am unhappy about it and I would like the following steps to be taken. Whatever steps they wish to take.
One of the things that they are doing is that once they go through some of these meetings, they virtually go out of meetings wanting to do something else. It’s a difficult one, how you manage. There are a set of rules which others agree we must use to conduct our political holding of the executive to account.
ZJ: How do you planning to manage this?
LT: It’s a difficult one. There are a set of rules which others agree we must use to hold the executive to account. Yes, and for the business of the house to be conducted decently there has to be an agreement that there is a referee and the referees’ orders need to be agreed to.
Even when the presiding officer makes a mistake, let’s assume they feel aggrieved by a ruling. There are processes, there is recourse. You can take that up and some measure of remedial steps can be formed if indeed it is found that a mistake has been made. Those methods are not being followed. That recourse is not being followed.
We would hate for the House to degenerate to an extent where we have to call for protection services supported by the security services of the House every time. It has never occurred. The speaker and the chairperson of the NCOP had a dilemma. They interrupted the president and allowed people to raise their questions despite having clarified that this is not the platform to do this. Let’s say they responded to the questiion by asking the president to reply, they had no idea whether the EFF would have accepted.
In August, they received an answer and we know how they reacted.
They protested and frustrated the entire proceedings and that’s what we know happened and there is no reason why we should suspect that it will not happen again.
I think what went on in their heads, both speakers, was to maintain the integrity of the house. They were guided by the ACT that governs parliament. (Extracts of the Act can be accessed from the Sidebar with relevant sections highlighted.)
They took time to again explain what happens in such gatherings. They were not saying their issue was not important but there was time set aside for this as agreed in the programming committtee.
ZJ :How did the other parties behave?
LT: The other parties agreed fully. They did not want to get involved in the disruption of Parliament at all. In fact, they were very embarrassed by what happened on 21 August. They were very aggrieved. Of course what they are saying is that they blame both the EFF and the presiding officers. That they took wrong decisions. Then they blame the president as well.
ZJ: So could it not be said or argued that the fact that the president hasn’t been decisive in this matter has led to this situation.?
LT: You can debate that with the ANC. Speaking for the house, we took every step that is necessary to get an answer from the president. Parliament has sent its report to the executive and they have three months in which to respond. Those three months end now in March. This includes a determination of how much he must pay.
ZJ: How much must he pay?
LT: This is what he is asking. He is not saying that he will not pay. He’s saying that as far as he is concerned he didn’t ask for all those things. He also doesn’t feel responsible for all that.
He is saying that we should let the people who did the job, the cluster of ministers, especially the ministers who were coordinating the security updates, to explain to him what he must respond to. In other words, if we must look at the technical processes underway, it would be unfair for parliamentary process to be blamed for that.
The president actually answered the question in August. He said, ‘How do I answer this question, when, because I do not know when the public protector doesn’t herself say how much I must pay in the first place. I am raising questions as to whether or not I should pay. I am asking people who have the competency to make that decision to advise me. That’s where I am.’
That was his response. When they insisted on asking him again, he responded by saying ‘no’ and Baleka said president there is a question. He replied that he is satisfied with the answer he had just given. This is what he said then.
It is his choice. On March 11, he could say, ‘No, I don’t think that I owe anybody anything. These guys came and imposed it on me.’ This is what he could say.
The other option is to say that, “OK, I’ll pay. I’ll pay R 100. And i’m doing this because I do not agree with what was done.’
ZJ: Does this mean that he respects the Public Protector?
LT: The Public protector has made recommendations whether he pays or not must be determined. He has said, that he didn’t make a request. He did not ask for those security features to be done, how much he must pay?
The changes were made by people who said that those are security features and they must say, if they are not security features, how much he must pay.
The public protector says that they are non security features and that they must determine how much the president must pay.
ZJ: Why is it taking so long?
LT: That is government. It operates at the pace of a village cow. We hope that the issue can be brought to conclusion sooner. Corruption that is known, which took place there must be pursued and money recovered. There is an investigations unit for that.
ZJ: What about the accusation of security forces inside the house?
LT: There’s an operating standard for everyone. All political parties accepted that implemented of security services which includes police.
ZJ: Why did the opposition ask if they had firearms? Is this not allowed in terms of the Act?
LT: They were actually asking for an answer they had. The people who were armed were around the president. As far as we know this is legiitimate. The DA is protesting against the president. Irrespectively so, it did not matter, they were going to walk out. They wanted an excuse and this is why the presiding officer said that no, you must make the decisions for yourself. The presiding officers have the right to call for reinforcements if needed. Previously they agreed with us that something must be done.
You know we have a diplomatic presence from across the world that is second to Washington. We have to give our guests the assurances that parliament is a secure place. Members of Parliament must cooperate to ensure that everyone is safe – members, visitors, diplomatic guests, the public.
You were asking earlier on if there could have been a different way. We are basing our assumptions on what happened the last time. Nothing indicates to us that it can be dealt with in any other way.
The security service was not ready in August. This time they were prepared.The assumptions based on the past. We haven’t found a convincing alternative to what happened. No alternatives to recidivism, a repeated offender. They cannot be dealt with in any other way.
Parliament is not dysfunctional . We are being delayed. Work continues well in the committees and the chairs insist on good conduct so that processes can take place and that no member impose their views. This is the way we prefer it.
ZJ: What if this happens again?
LC: No, we hope that we can convince them to act otherwise. If they do that, they will be taken out of the house. They will not be allowed to do that. They are not going to stop if they continue to disrupt. The alternative to disruption is to cooperate.
ZJ: And the scrambling of the signal? As a journalist, I found this to be very distressing.
LT: The practice which happens ahead of the week by the police, the army and the security services, you will see them marching along the hall. My own view, I suspect, is that it happened as part of the work during preparation. Usually it happens when cabinet meets to prevent other countries from listening in.
We as presiding officers will not allow communication to be stopped. The reason why the president moved it to the evening is that we want it to reach the most people in the widest possible range. It’s our preference to communicate it promptly as it happens. There is no way we could be involved in the scrambling. We want our people to see and hear directly from the president.
I think this is why Baleka (Mbete The Speaker) acted so swiftly in making sure that was dealt with. This is being investigated. It affected the mics for the president’s speech so we would not have asked for something like this to be done. I think that is the appropriate thing to do. It also talks about our broadcasting policy and the use of technology in the house and so on. There was someone using video in the house, I remember in the benches of the DA there was a direct light for about three or four minutes. All this will have to be discussed in the next few weeks.
I visited London recently for the Common wealth parliamentary association which coincided with their parliamentary anniversary in Britain which was celebrating 800th anniversary of the magna carta. In the precinct, everywhere you went you saw police and guys armed to the teeth. I was often stopped and asked not to proceed in a certain direction but in another. Many diplomats are telling us that we are being too nice.
ZJ: Why was it not possible for us to see when the security men were escorting members out?
LT: What do you mean?
ZJ: The Camera was only on the speakers and on those being removed.
LT: I was not aware of this.