The decision by opposition parties to band together in a vote of no confidence against Jacob Zuma highlights a growing frustration with Parliament.
Opposition parties in Parliament are already considering a Plan B in the event that the ANC turns down a request for a debate to resolve a vote of no confidence in the leadership of President Jacob Zuma.
Last week eight political parties banded together to file a motion of no confidence against Zuma, citing the Marikana killings, the Nkandla renovations, the Limpopo textbook saga, successive economic downgrades, and disrespect for the Constitution, among others, as their reasons.
The ANC has called the motion a “narrow publicity seeking gimmick” but the DA, Cope and the IFP have asked for a date for the debate to be scheduled on Thursday morning. They’ve also asked that a vote be taken at the end of the debate by secret ballot.
Such a debate will only be scheduled if agreed to by either the Chief Whips’ Forum or the Programming Committee which sets the agenda for each day. With the ANC in the majority, the party essentially has the final say in whether the discussion ever makes it to the floor.
But Paul Graham, executive director of the Institute for Democracy in Africa, said proposing a motion of no confidence in a president is legitimate political activity.
Graham said the motion suggests “a frustration with Parliament and the president, that matters of concern to opposition parties and by extension to almost one in every three voting adults are not being given sufficient weight by the governing party”.
“Personally I would like to see a rational, hard talking debate in Parliament about the state of the nation and the performance of the president,” he said.
“That the motion will fail is self-evident. But that does not mean it is not an important moment in our democratic life.”
The parties are under no illusions about the prospects of the motion being debated in Parliament.
IFP chief whip Koos Van Der Merwe said that the fate of the motion lay with the ANC, which has a majority in Parliament. “If they want to let a motion through or they want to kill a motion, they do it. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
“Parliament and politics are in a state of paralysis because of Mangaung,” said Van Der Merwe. “Do you think the ANC will want to open this can of worms a month before Mangaung?”
Cope acting whip Juli Kilian agreed that there was little hope the debate would actually happen.
“We’re going to go into the chief whips' forum [on Wednesday], and it’s going to be a huge fight, then we’re going to the programming committee on Thursday and its going to be another huge fight,” she said.
“We’re not going to accept that they’re just not going to debate it.”
Kilian said that if the ANC was going to “abuse their majority to filibuster to get to the end of their term without a debate”, the parties would consider taking the debate forward outside of Parliament.
With the final sitting for the year looming at the end of next week, it seems Parliament is set to close with a bit of drama.
Stonewalling the opposition
Over the past few weeks, the ruling party has effectively stonewalled the opposition, refusing to entertain debate on issues such as the massacre at Marikana or the multi-million rand renovations at the president’s private residence in Nkandla. It has reasoned that debate on such matters would be premature given the investigations underway by the commission of inquiry in the first instance and the public protector in the second.
Moloto Mothapo, spokesperson for the ANC chief whip, said that the issues raised by the opposition parties had been exhausted in Parliament, and that allegations against the president in particular, had been responded to in the National Assembly.
Mothapo denied that it was unfair that only a handful on members’ issues had been heard at Parliament this year.
“It's quite fair especially when you balance it with other competing matters that ought to be before Parliament,” he said. “Parliament does not sit to debate motions only … There are Bills that come for debate, there are statements that are read, motions without notice, department reports get discussed, there is quite a lot [to discuss].”
Mothapo pointed out that hundreds of discussions had been called for in Parliament but said, "if we were to debate all of them, we would spend the next 10 years debating”.
He said there is little chance that the opposition parties motion of no confidence would make it onto the order paper for discussion.
“The motion as it currently stands, in our opinion, does not qualify as a proper motion to be debated in Parliament. There is little chance it will pass the rigorous process for the verification and approval of motions, precisely because it is thick on allegations and hogwash and very thin on evidence and fact,” he said.
Members' business takes a back seat
Most of the time spent deliberating in Parliament is dedicated to discussions on legislation or considering reports from the various parliamentary committees. But some MPs have accused the ANC of flooding the order paper – which lists Parliament’s agenda for each day with all sorts of reports for discussion – and failing to give adequate time and attention to issues of public interest raised by other MPs.
By some counts, an inordinate amount of time is spent on ceremonial matters. In a thesis on the deliberative tradition in Parliament, Victoria Hasson, chief of staff to the DA’s parliamentary support office, argued that plenary had become congested by “celebratory, ceremonial and congratulatory questions, motions and second readings” which have “suffocated” debate.
Members' requests for discussions gain little traction in Parliament. Of the hundreds of discussions that have been requested since the beginning of the year, only a handful have been approved and scheduled for debate.
Among them were discussions on the impact of South Africa’s international relations policy on trade; on the high salaries of executives in the private sector; and on the killings at Marikana.
These have been outnumbered by motions of condolence to commemorate the deaths of former colleagues and ceremonial debates on issues such as Women’s Day or Freedom Day.
Watching a session of Parliament on the Parliamentary Service or perusing transcripts of the proceedings available online show the banal nature of some of the discussions entertained by the House.
In February, MPs took time to laud the achievements of Richard Levi, who struck 13 sixes in a Twenty20 match, to congratulate golfer Jbé Kruger for his performance at the Avantha Masters in India, and to deliberate on the importance of Mother Tongue Day.
Yet one wonders whether Parliament could have headed off the escalating violence that resulted in the massacre at Marikana if, in early May, it had entertained a request for a discussion on “the circumstances that led to the protracted, illegal strike at Impala Platinum’s mine in Rustenberg and possible legislative measures to prevent such strikes occurring in the future”.