/ 17 February 2015

We didn’t know it was a signal scrambler, says adamant Mbete

President Jacob Zuma laughs after EFF MPs were forced to leave the house.
President Jacob Zuma laughs after EFF MPs were forced to leave the house.

From calling it an unknown device, to a machine and “certain equipment”, presiding officers at Parliament have admitted to knowing about the installation of various equipment prior to the State of the Nation Address (Sona) – although they are adamant that they did not know it was a signal scrambler.

Refusing to say who owns the device and installed it, National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete, National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson Thandi Modise and their deputies, Lechesa Tsenoli and Raseriti Tau, said they were made aware of a plan to install certain equipment as one of the measures to be taken for the protection of the head of state, during a readiness briefing the Wednesday before the Sona.

Quick to point out that the media were not the targets of the device, they could not say at who it was aimed. 

The presiding officers were addressing a press conference about the disruptions in Parliament at the Sona.

Informed of a plan
Mbete said Parliament did not own any device that scrambles cellular phone networks, and that they were informed of the plan to install the equipment as part of the briefing with different clusters.

“And it is an item we received as a report along with many other reports, without necessarily knowing the details or the particular effects. It was an item dealing with what measures had to be taken for the protection of the head of state and the deputy president. The media was not the target, it was not mentioned, and it was never on anybody’s mind. The report will come from owners of the device and the media can then talk to them.”

The device prevented journalists and the public from making calls or tweeting from the house before the address, and was only switched off when journalists from the gallery, along with opposition parties Economic Freedom Fighters and Democratic Alliance, started chanting “bring back the signal”.

The presiding officers stood by their actions on Thursday, when Mbete called in the security services to eject  Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema along with all the EFF MPs from the National Assembly, after they insisted on questioning Zuma about the money spent on his private homestead at Nkandla during his address.

When asked why all members of the EFF were ejected when only three had been asked to leave by the speaker, they said the rest of the MPs were also thrown out because they had stood up and joined in the disruption.

Tsenoli said the Powers and Privileges Act empowered the presiding officers not only to ask them to leave, “but if they did not and prevented the members from carrying out, they themselves become as guilty as those who were named already.

“The Powers and Privileges Act is very explicit in how to deal with disruptive natures. If the sergeant at arms and the Parliament protection services attempt to carry out their responsibilities and members surround them to prevent them from doing so, then they are disrupting the work.”

They said that they did not want to see the disruptions that occurred on Thursday during Zuma’s address ever occur again, as they were meant to embarrass Parliament and the country.

Then it was a case of “what happened in the ANC North West provincial congress, shall stay in the North West”, when Mbete was asked several times about her calling Malema a cockroach during an elective conference this past weekend, with NCOP deputy chairperson Tau constantly answering on her behalf.

The Mail & Guardian reported on Saturday that Mbete had referred to EFF leader Malema as a cockroach during her keynote address, where she was speaking as the ANC chairperson. As part of her strategy to weaken the EFF, Mbete said ANC deployees must work hard. 

“If we don’t work we will continue to have cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place”.

Tau said the speaker was at the conference as part of her duties for the ruling party, and therefore any question related to what she said at the time did not belong in Parliament.

Modise agreed with Tau, and said the speaker would deal with her comments in her own time.

Refusing to talk about the matter, Mbete said if they were to set a precedence of bringing political engagement issues into Parliament, they would never attend to the business of Parliament.

“I firmly reiterate what other presiding officers have said. Issues that belong to the space of our political involvement in South Africa must remain there. Because all of us in the Chamber and in both houses are political beings. We are brought here by other political parties and we act out there as political animals. That remains in that space.”