The protest by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs during a parliamentary question and answer session on Thursday posed a threat to national security. This is according to Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who told journalists on Tuesday morning that the EFF’s actions were a threat to national security and to everything else.
“It posed a threat to everybody inside that chamber but also to the institution. It undermined the institution of Parliament, it undermined our Constitution and everything which we are representing here,” said Mapisa-Nqakula, responding to a question from a journalist in Parliament.
The definition of national security is widely contested in South African politics. Opposition parties and civil society organisations have over the years voiced their unhappiness over the ANC’s proposed definition of national security, saying it was too broad, vague and open-ended and would give ministers unchecked discretion to decide what constitutes national security.
This was during Parliament’s processing of the controversial Protection of State Information Bill between 2010 and 2013. On Tuesday, Mapisa-Nqakula said that the security cluster ministers have instructed senior government officials to make recommendations on how to prevent such incidences.
While she evaded questions about the exact measures that might be taken against the offending MPs, her colleague Police Minister Nathi Nhleko revealed that the new measures would make it easy for police to arrest and remove from the Parliament precinct any person who is disrupting a sitting of the House or a committee of Parliament.
Measures put in place
Mapisa-Nqakula said that while Parliament was independent from the executive, the cluster could not stand idle. Mapisa-Nqakula said certain measures had been put in place with immediate effect by the security cluster to ensure that such an event never occurs again.
She pointed out that the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, which governs the conduct of MPs and members of the provincial legislatures, made provision for the police to arrest and remove from the precinct – on the order of the speaker – any person who creates or takes part in any disturbance in the precinct while Parliament is sitting.
“There are certain activities … impede the exercise by Parliament …. interfere with Parliament … section 11 of the Act provides that if any person who creates or disturbs the house may be arrested and removed from the precinct,” she said.
The police did not move in because there was no instruction from the speaker to do so, Mapisa-Nqakula said. “When the police came, they said they needed a clear instruction from the speaker of the National Assembly, because there was confusion in terms of the rules,” she said.
A number of senior ANC members have criticised the police’s delayed reaction and the fact that they did not arrest EFF MPs on their arrival in Parliament. Mapisa-Nqakula also revealed that it was she who instructed the police to ensure that when they go into the National Assembly chamber to evict EFF MPs who had staged a sit-in, there should not be a scuffle nor violence or manhandling of the MPs, but to rather ensure that they vacated the assembly.
She denied that the executive was interfering in the legislative arm of state, saying that if a similar incident had occurred in the courts, they would have reacted similarly. “There are rules and privileges and if you look at those rules, they say when there is immediate danger to the life or safety of any person or damage to any property; members of the security services may without obtaining such permission enter upon and take action in the precinct in so far as it is necessary to avert that danger,” she said.
According to Mapisa-Nqakula, while there was no heavy handedness in dealing with the matter, in future things will be different as there will be measures put in place to prevent a repetition of the incident.
Nhleko revealed that he had been the one who called the public order police to Parliament “because the order of the House had degenerated”. He said the police and other people on the scene, including ANC members, exercised “a lot of restraint” including in terms of the interventions from the security management’s point of view.
Nhleko described Thursday’s events as completely abnormal and said the measures that were being put in place had nothing to do with heavy-handedness “and everything to do with how we execute and enforce the provision that we have in the law”. This would allow for when or as a situation like Thursday’s arises, that requires the removal of MP or anybody from the Parliament precinct, for the police to effect arrest and relevant measures when the speaker makes such an order.
There were a lot more police in Parliament on Tuesday, the first day of a parliamentary sitting since the EFF disruption, than usual possibly as a result of the new security measures. Security was tighter at the entrances to Parliament and to parliamentary building with police who normally facilitate access into the precinct very strict in checking the credentials of those going in and out of the institution.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has raised concerns over the involvement of the security cluster ministers in public security matters, saying that it appeared to violate the most basic principle of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution. DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said he will request an urgent meeting of Parliament’s highest decision-making body, the Parliamentary Oversight Authority, to discuss the matter.
He said Mapisa-Nqakula’s statements that the executive “cannot stand idle as our democracy is undermined” was a veiled threat, which completely ignores Parliament’s responsibility to uphold its own rules and therefore handle the matter. “If anything, it is because the executive does not take parliamentary accountability seriously that we have ended up in this situation in the first place. It is important to note that Parliament holds the executive to account and not the other way around,” said Steenhuisen.
He said the parliamentary oversight authority must reject the infringement of its powers, and independence as a separate arm of the state, by the executive.