Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs might soon feel the wrath of Parliament, as the legislature’s powers and privileges committee, which deals with MP discipline, has moved with speed to charge the 20 EFF MPs who chanted “pay back the money” to President Jacob Zuma during a plenary session of the National Assembly last month.
The charges were filed on Friday amidst calls by the ANC’s powerful decision-making body, the national executive committee (NEC), over the weekend for Parliament to mete out harsher punishment to transgressing MPs.
The EFF MPs charged with misconduct are expected to argue their case in a inquiry before Parliament’s powers and privileges committee from next Tuesday, September 30.
The inquiry is scheduled to sit for five days and the committee will then deliberate on the fate of the MPs for another two days.
In an interesting twist, the powers and privileges committee will conduct the inquiry during Parliament’s two-week recess, proving that the legislature wanted to deal with the matter urgently and decisively. Parliament will be on recess from September 29 and will resume on October 13.
Chairperson of the powers and privileges committee, Lemias Mashile, said the inquiry was being held during recess because “the matter has to be finalised”.
Mashile said the recess made it easier to finalise the matter, as MPs would be available to appear before his committee, and would not be held up in other Parliamentary committees.
Tantamount to harassment
Some EFF MPs were shocked when members of Parliament’s protection services delivered the notices to appear before the inquiry.
EFF MP Bernard Joseph posted on his Facebook page about how two Parliamentary protection officers arrived at his home on Friday night, in his absence, to serve a notice to appear before the inquiry.
Joseph lives in Thornton, Cape Town.
Another EFF MP Godrich Gardee’s notification was hand-delivered to his home in the Mpumalanga province.
EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said this was tantamount to harassment.
Ndlozi said EFF MPs will honour the invitations to appear before the committee and will participate in the inquiry. They will however, challenge the charges, he said.
Mashile said it was key for Parliament to ensure that the charged MPs received the charges within the stipulated time and therefore “Parliament makes all sorts of arrangements to make sure that they [MPs] receive their notices”.
The 20 EFF MPs face a range of charges, with the common charge among all of them being that of refusing to leave the National Assembly chamber when ordered to do so by Speaker Baleka Mbete.
Mashile said some MPs face extra charges for disturbing the proceedings and for defying the speaker by refusing to take their seat when instructed to do so.
Proceedings of the National Assembly were brought to a sudden halt on August 21 due to a political standoff when EFF MPs disrupted a session where questions were posed to the president.
Mbete referred their conduct to the powers and privileges committee, which deals with MP disciplinary issues, for it to investigate whether their conduct constituted contempt of Parliament in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act.
Mbete also sought to suspend the EFF MPs during the inquiry, but they successfully challenged her attempts to do so.
According to the National Assembly rules, which detail procedure to be followed in the investigation and determination of allegations of misconduct and contempt of Parliament, a member charged with misconduct or contempt must receive written notice of all allegations and charges against him or her and the notification should be delivered to the member at least five working days before the hearing.
“If it is not possible to serve the notice personally on the member, the Sheriff may be requested to serve such notice,” read the rules.
A member facing charges is entitled to be assisted by a fellow member or may get outside legal representation.
If found guilty, an MP will be given an opportunity to present mitigating factors to the committee before the committee reports to the House. Such representation may be verbal or in writing.
‘Obvious intention to humiliate’
Meanwhile, the ANC’s NEC, which met at the weekend, announced its concern over the developments in Parliament, particularly “the obvious intention to humiliate and embarrass the president and the deputy president whenever they appear in the House”.
The NEC appealed to Parliament to urgently resolve the challenges it was facing and to restore to the House the necessary dignity, decorum and appreciation of its rules, ensuring that it once again becomes a House which South Africans can be proud of.
“The NEC cautions against continuing this trend of negatively exposing the head of state to disrespect and intended humiliation by a fringe group committed to undermining democracy,” it said in a statement.
It said that Parliament had a responsibility and a duty to ensure that the president continued to account to the public without him and his office being subjected to behavior that undermined the institution and the very foundation of democracy.
“Even after this unbecoming conduct, the president and the deputy president commit to be accountable to Parliament. They will, in the exercise of their accountability, also continue to engage the people of South Africa through various other platforms including direct contact with our people such as the recently relaunched Izimbizo forums,” said the ANC.
Respect for the rules
The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution’s executive secretary Lawson Naidoo agreed that MPs have to respect Parliamentary rules as it cannot be a “free for all” in the House, but added that the executive also has to show respect for the rules by willingly coming to account, as required by the rules.
Naidoo said while the ANC can raise its concerns about the behavior of MPs in Parliament, it cannot dictate on how MPs should be dealt with.
“This is something that must be left to the institution to determine. The ANC is represented in Parliament, it must leave it to Parliament as an independent institution to decide how to deal with its issues,” he said.
Naidoo said it was not wrong for MPs to raise issues sharply, as demonstrated by EFF leader Julius Malema.
“Privilege is there to ensure that MPs can say things bluntly to hold the executive accountable. The speaker must then determine and draw the line between that privilege and what is derogatory,” added Naidoo.