On Tuesday, six provincial departmental budget votes went ahead without the eight members of the Economic Freedom Fighters in the Gauteng provincial legislature.
It was as though the EFF had never entered the political scene. With the only Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) member of the house apologising for not attending the sitting and a few members of the executive committee sending apologies for leaving early, it was up to the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) members of the provincial legislature (MPLs) to debate the matters that arose.
The EFF has refused to be part of the Gauteng legislature’s proceedings unless its members can wear their red overalls and domestic workers’ uniforms, missing key budget vote debates in the process.
On Thursday morning, the rules committee of the legislature was expected to meet to decide the fate of the EFF members of the house and the propriety of their overalls. The party has promised mass protests if the speaker, Ntombi Mekgwe, rules against its sartorial ambitions.
But what was done in the legislature without the EFF in the house? And what are the party’s MPLs doing while they are absent?
Just two months after being elected to the legislature, with eight of its members drawing salaries from state funds, the party appears to be operating independently of it, undertaking its own oversight measures in the province.
Trust, say EFF members, has completely broken down between them and the speaker’s office, raising concerns about the party’s effectiveness in the legislature.
The trouble started on July 1 when police forcibly removed EFF members from the legislature for refusing to leave after Mekgwe deemed their outfits “unparliamentary”.
Then, on July 22, hundreds of EFF members stormed the legislature in an effort to hand over a memorandum to the acting speaker, Uhuru Moiloa.
Party supporters allegedly looted hawkers’ stalls, burned down a mobile police satellite station and broke the windows of several shops on their way to Braamfontein, where they assembled in the morning.
During the clash at the legislature, several people, including party leader Julius Malema, were injured. According to reports, he was hit by an object thrown from the crowd.
The supporters breached security at the legislature, storming the main entrance on Rissik Street, and a stampede ensued. Police fired rubber bullets to repel the group.
The building has been under heavy police guard since then. Rolls of barbed wire stand ready to be unrolled outside the venue, and tactical response team vehicles surround the building. Police and private security guards man the exits and entrances.
Barred from entry
The EFF says it has been barred from entering the building by the police and this is why it has been unable to attend the sittings since the spat over its uniforms began.
But a source familiar with legislature proceedings, who asked to remain anonymous, said that a programme committee meeting was held on Tuesday morning and an EFF member was present.
He also said the party’s office staff were present in the legislature, although their MPLs were not in the house.
According to EFF’s caucus leader, Mgcini Tshwaku, the party wanted the rules committee to meet urgently to make a ruling on whether or not the party’s MPLs could wear their overalls and domestic workers’ clothing. This was to avoid missing the crucial budget votes, he said.
A meeting was scheduled, but was later postponed as members of the legislature had other commitments. On Thursday morning, the rules committee, chaired by Mekgwe, was supposed to meet to decide the fate of the EFF’s overalls.
The EFF believe the meeting was postponed and that no ruling was made. Mekgwe and her office were not available for comment at the time of going to press.
Talk of war
In Cape Town, EFF leader Julius Malema talked war. He vowed to shut down central Johannesburg with a protest against the Gauteng legislature’s decision to bar his party’s members from wearing their red uniforms, according to a Sapa report.
“We are taking them to court as well, but we are going to organise another march to Gauteng of not less than 50 000 people because we think we need to teach them a lesson,” Malema told reporters at Parliament. “That thing they did in Gauteng was a coup of a special type.”
Malema also threatened that “we’ll try the court, but we’ll also continue to use the power of the masses.
“If we go wearing red suits, they are going to pass a law or a rule that says red suits are not welcome. If we allow it with overalls, they are going to do it with something else just to keep you outside the house.”
At issue is the fact that Mekgwe and others see the asijiki (we will not retreat) motto printed on their overalls as political party insignia. The Gauteng legislature rules only require that members should be dressed “appropriately” but, according to insiders, political party regalia has been banned for several years.
“The precedent actually comes from an incident when an ANC member wore political party regalia during an official legislature event. There was a complaint laid and the speaker at the time ruled that political party clothing would not be allowed,” said a source.
This is to prevent members from campaigning for their parties with the legislature’s resources, or during official legislature work.
‘Neat and ironed’
But Tshwaku said this week that the asijiki insignia was not a slogan that belonged solely to the EFF, and he added that the eight members wore “neat, ironed” overalls, which should be treated as “appropriate” attire.
While the EFF members and police clashed outside the legislature last Tuesday, the legislature heard debates on the budgets of roads and transport, economic development, infrastructure, agriculture and social development.
E-tolling on Gauteng’s highways and land reform are key pillars of the EFF’s policy, but the party was not in the house to debate these issues.
Last Friday, the house adopted the budget votes for the provincial treasury and the department of finance, as well as the legislature’s own budget and that of the premier’s office. The EFF did not attend.
On Tuesday this week, the legislature held debates on the budgets of the departments of health, education, co-operative governance and traditional affairs, and housing.
There were eight empty seats between the ANC and DA caucuses inside the house.
Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu announced major refurbishments at several major Gauteng hospitals. She said the Natalspruit Regional Hospital, with 821 beds, will be opened later this year, and clinics will be planned and built in Cosmo City, Kagiso, Randfontein, Khutsong and other areas in the province.
Maternity and neonatal ward lifts are to be replaced at three hospitals and the decision to close the Kempton Park and Hillbrow hospitals is now being reviewed.
But the chairperson of the portfolio committee on health, Nompi Nhlapo, said the department’s budget is insufficient to cope with the massive backlog in infrastructure problems at Gauteng hospitals.
DA MPL Jack Bloom raised concerns about the number of “turnaround plans” introduced by the department, year after year, that never seem to be implemented.
But the EFF this week claimed the oversight work that it is doing independent of the legislature is sufficient to make up for its missed time.
It is now apparent that the EFF is prepared to work independently of the legislature, although it claims it will do this only as a last resort.
“They are just rushing the budgets now, maybe so they can get back to handing out tenders or whatever, but we have been asking very serious questions in there,” Tshwaku said.
“I think in time you will see we’ve been doing our own oversight.
“We are going to go to Tembisa soon to monitor a hospital there, and I think we will need to donate beds, as the EFF, to Helen Joseph Hospital,” he said.
Tshwaku added that the EFF has a mandate from its voters to represent the poor and disenfranchised in the legislature, and views the wearing any other attire as “selling out”. “The issue of the overalls is just one of those things that we can’t let go.”