South Africa

Parliamentary Notebook: A squash and a squeeze gets two weeks’ worth of work done in four days

What usually unfolds over two weeks at Parliament – the State of the Nation Address, its debate and presidential reply and the Budget – was successfully crammed into four working days. That it was done from last Friday to Wednesday shows that the national legislature can step up its pace rather than stalling amid protocol and procedure snarl-ups. But by Thursday many MPs sighed a breath of relief that the debate on the DA motion to dissolve Parliament had been postponed and, once the party political caucuses were done, it was time to take time out. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

Budget 2018 done and dusted, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba may now have time for that “Candy Crush rehab” he said a Budget tipster had offered to join him in.

There are many who actually need the same rehabilitation,” quipped the finance minister in an off-script detour during his maiden Budget speech on Wednesday, with a dig at the heckling opposition benches, sans the EFF: “Others need far more serious rehab than Candy Crush.”

Social media was set aflutter by that photo of Minister Instagram’s electronic habits last week Thursday when the National Assembly gathered to elect ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s president and to hear the first presidential words of a new dawn, public service, partnership and renewal.

Getting such photo shots from the public and media galleries in the House – or more correctly, preventing such shots – has been a preoccupation of spooks, spies and security apparatchiks. It’s reliably understood that all this dates back a few years to when someone took a photo of then President Jacob Zuma’s scripted pages featuring a rather large font. It was deemed a security risk along the lines of, “We must prevent a leak!”.

Maybe the domestic securocrat environment has not quite yet transitioned into the 21st century and its social media platforms. The moment the president, or any one else, speaks, it’s on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. A top Twitterato – presuming this would be the singular of the plural Twitterati – confirmed such practice to this rather social media shy reporter.

Amid this proclaimed new dawn, things are changing. When parliamentary staff posted in the media gallery during Monday’s marathon nine-hour parliamentary SONA debate a move to stop journos from using their smartphones – it’s not quite clear who gave this instruction – they were overruled from within the institution.

And much played out on social media: one hack posted an objection on Twitter – cellphones are used to tweet, record sound, take notes, the post said – triggering an intervention by the national legislature’s communications boss, and a reportback that it was all sorted.

Many things have changed, and changed rapidly, in the first week of the Ramaphosa presidency. There are noticeably fewer bodyguards, and those that are around seem more ready to allow access, be it in the parliamentary precinct, an early morning walk through Cape Town townships or on the greens.

Could there be job security worries among the automatic rifle-carrying counterassault cops travelling in what the Americans call a transit van, which went everywhere the former president went? That van once was observed crawling behind Zuma, surrounded by a tight phalanx of bodyguards, after the president decided to walk the 100 or so metres from his Tuynhuys office to the Poorthuis entrance of Parliament to attend ANC parliamentary caucus.

But some things are slow to trickle down the echelons, never mind new dawn, service to citizens and all that.

Many ministers still seem to take their bodyguards as handbag/man bag carriers and car door openers. Several ministers were seen only getting out of cars when the protector scurried to open the door, it was observed amid the recent turbulent political times that saw an unprecedented four ANC parliamentary caucus meetings in two weeks.

Also not quite sorted was the presence of a plainclothes public order police official keeping watch with a camera at the ready as MPs and their guests, dressed in their finest, trooped in for SONA. A riot on the red carpet? Surely only in the sense of a fashion decision gone horribly wrong, with an odd jostle among photographers and camera people in their pen cordoned off by red rope.

SONA happened in a snap eight days after its original date. The traditional presidential address marking the official start of the parliamentary year was delayed to give the governing ANC space to resolve its internal politics over Zuma’s exit from the Union Buildings. It was only all systems go once that Valentine’s Day resignation was delivered with what has become the usual late-night timing, some 12 hours after the ANC parliamentary caucus was ready to support, after an amendment, an EFF no confidence motion.

The red carpet, rolled out in anticipation of the first SONA date, had been left along various parliamentary corridors, as were the banners proclaiming this year’s theme: “Making your future better – learning from Madiba”.

That no one found time, if not to redesign, then at least to put a sticker with the new date on those banners is understandable given the time crunch.

A little more complex, but no obstacle, was the unavailability of the autocue for Ramaphosa’s maiden SONA, as was discovered during a walk-through of the address earlier that Friday. There was a shrug and a quick back-up plan – the presidential tablet. With the benches for the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) delegates removed from the floor of the House when Budget came round, there was space for an autocue, strategically hidden by some greenery.

This is the stuff that happens in the background of the serious stuff – the speeches, the reactions, the heckling and the debates which for the first time in a long time focused on national issues.

But amid the frantic pace to pull off the big ticket items like SONA and the Budget in a time crunch, the other parliamentary stuff continued to tick over.

And so the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), Parliament’s record of work, on Thursday published Gigaba’s Valentine’s Day letter requesting another postponement in the tabling of SAA’s annual report and financials. It’s the second such request in the past six months. Technically, the national airliner is no longer a going concern.

The public enterprises committee inquiry into Eskom State Capture – its damning public testimony has largely confirmed the Scorpio & amaBhungane #GuptaLeaks revelations published by Daily Maverick – will be joined by similar inquiries by the mineral resources and trade and industry committees.

This week the mineral resources MPs will draft terms of references after Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane on Wednesday again was unavailable to appear before MPs since his initial “I deny all” appearance in October.

Now the pressure on Parliament is on a number of fronts.

The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill, delayed for years, is back front and centre since SONA as part of policy certainty for the mining sector. Passed in November 2014, it was returned to the national legislature in January 2015 as various publicly proclaimed completion deadlines – the latest was December 2017 – have come and gone.

Parliament is on the clock to pass – or alter the funding allocations as is permitted by law – the Budget that announced the first ever value-added tax (VAT) hike in democratic South Africa to fill a revenue hole. There’s a statutory four-month deadline.

There are oversight matters, including why government’s decision of a few years ago to pay suppliers within 30 days is still not getting 100% adherence, and Finance Director-General Dondo Mogajane’s pending directive to this effect next week.

In short, in a chock-a-block week much has changed amid very different political optics and tone. Whether it holds remains to be seen. But this week at Parliament has shown where there’s the will, there’s a way. All protocols observed. DM

Photo: President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2018 during the joint sitting of Parliament in the National Assembly, Cape Town, 16 February 2018. [Photo: GCIS]

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