Regina Mohlomi is unassuming when she’s not wearing her official black robe or carrying a gigantic gold-plated mace.
If you saw the former teacher out of her parliamentary role, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a headmistress, or an accountant, or the manager of a white-collar office.
But, for almost a decade, she’s had a front-row seat to the turbulences and successes of parliamentary politics.
Mohlomi retires this year as South Africa’s first woman serjeant-at-arms.
In modern parliamentary democracies, it is a ceremonial role, meant to hold up the traditions and procedures of the legislative body.
“I always prefer the softer side of the job. The protocol, the decorum,” Mohlomi says.
There have been times, however, when she has had to be stern to maintain order in Parliament which, in recent years, has been the site of physical confrontation and forced removals of certain members, most notably of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)
Mohlomi down plays the chaotic moments, however, saying that that was only a small part of her job.
But, in 2014, she was called to give evidence before a parliamentary disciplinary committee after 22 of the 25 EFF MPs in the house had to be forcibly removed by security.
The MPs stalled a question and answer session with then-president Jacob Zuma when they chanted “pay back the money”.
During her testimony she told the committee how she personally asked the MPs, including EFF leader Julius Malema, to vacate the house or else she’d be forced to call in security. They ignored her.
Mohlomi says she never saw herself as a parliamentary bouncer. Her job was to convey the message of the speaker of the House to the offending MP and then follow the procedure.
“The serjeant-at-arms is just an extension of the speaker. So the job is to repeat what the presiding officer has said. I would say: ‘The presiding officer has asked you to leave the House, and if you don’t leave, it means we have to call parliamentary security.’ And usually, they would just leave. With the EFF we’ve had a lot of problems getting them out of the chamber,” Mohlomi says.
But grudges are quickly buried and politicians move on to the next political moment.
Even if MPs do get disgruntled, Mohlomi said this would be over a political argument that they lost and not because they were asked to leave. Tomorrow all is forgotten. Bruised political egos heal quickly.
In saying farewell to Mohlomi, MPs honoured her.
In recognition of her duties, an official declaration by the House commending her service was read out in the National Assembly.
“For the past eight years, Ms Mohlomi has carried the mace, the symbol of the authority of Parliament … enforcing peace and order in the House upon the Speaker’s instruction. The responsibility to carry the mace requires a person of Ms Mohlomi’s stature. It requires a South African who understands and appreciates the symbols of our statehood. It requires someone who will carry her responsibility with dignity and with the utmost regard for the procedures of the House,” the declaration read.
Even the EFF, whom Mohlomi has probably had the most conflict with since their arrival in Parliament in 2014, delivered an endearing tribute: “Our first contact with Mam Regina was when we were evicted from this House. [Laughter.] She came to us. She approached us in a gentle and kind manner and tried to avoid the inevitable. But, of course, history would have it that whatever ensued after that, had to ensue. Because there was no other way for the EFF to announce its arrival on the parliamentary political scene,” recalled Nazier Paulsen in a special farewell sitting.
Mohlomi has shared the red carpet with presidents and senior figures in South Africa’s democracy, but she recalls very few of these moments.
Her personal mission over nearly 10 years or so was not to embarrass herself in front of 400 MPs and millions of South Africans watching proceedings on television.
“I don’t have memories, all I have is relief. Because since I started in this job I’ve had butterflies about falling. I’ve had nightmares about it, about falling on SONA [State of the Nation] day. I’ve always taken precautions to wear the proper shoes, with rubber soles, and I would rub them on the carpet a few times. It’s such a relief I did not fall,” she says.