/ 5 November 2020

DA cries foul play over muted mic

Nicole Graham
Aggrieved: DA eThekwini councillor Nicole Graham had her mic muted during a virtual sitting. The municipality blamed it on a software glitch

The pandemic has pushed us indoors and far away from each other. Since the outbreak, millions of people have had to adjust their lives. Many aspects of daily life, such as screaming in council chambers, parliamentary riots, work meetings and schooling, have had to be conducted virtually. 

Even elections are now conducted online. The Democratic Alliance held its leadership elections via cyberspace at the weekend. 

However, a new lexicon has had to emerge: mute or unmute yourself; turn your video on or off. 

And the move to virtual platforms has not been without its bloopers.

In April, reported that Wale’s health minister, Vaughan Gething, who forgot to mute his microphone went on a rant about one of his colleagues dropping the swear words during a virtual session of the Welsh assembly. 

In April, The Guardian reported that Wales’s health minister, Vaughan Gething, who had forgotten to mute his microphone, went on a rant about one of his colleagues, dropping swear words during a virtual session of the Welsh assembly. 

The New Yorker suspended its reporter Jeffrey Toobin, who was masturbating during a Zoom call with his colleagues. 

An official from the Independent Development Trust appeared without a shirt on and in bed during a virtual committee meeting of public works and infrastructure in June. The department of public works said the official would be disciplined. 

There was also an outcry about a DA MP who was allegedly shopping for alcohol during a virtual parliamentary session. However, Tsepo Mhlongo said he had gone to buy airtime and not alcohol. 

Some people have not taken the matter of a muted microphone as just another glitch in this new virtual world. 

In May, eThekwini municipality councillors created their own blooper when DA member Nicole Graham, who felt aggrieved for being muted during a meeting, approached the courts.

On 29 May councillors were meant to debate their budget. According to the court papers, Graham had a speech to read out and two minutes into it she was muted. Every time she tried to return to the meeting, other council members heckled and interrupted her, and one even said they would not allow her to speak. 

Graham argued to the high court sitting in Durban that it should find that the council meeting was unlawful and that it did not allow the DA a chance to debate and approve the budget. Graham told the court that two minutes into her speech her mic was muted. 

After the virtual meeting, Graham wrote to council speaker Wezizwe Thusi objecting to how the DA was prohibited from participating in the budget meeting. Graham also wanted to find out how the council planned to deal with future virtual meetings. 

By the time Thusi responded to the letter, the DA had already taken the matter to court. 

Thusi’s response acknowledged that Graham had been interrupted during her address and that her speech was inaudible because of this. 

“I cannot comment on whether the interruptions were deliberate or not because I have not received any technical report about what took place,” said Thusi.

She argued that she had asked for the meeting to stand down and for the sound technicians to investigate what the problem might have been. “While waiting, there was a proposal that I proceeded with other speakers to assess whether the technical problem was only isolated to you or affected other councillors as well. 

“After Cllr [councillor] Nkosi, I gave you another opportunity to speak, only to find that you were no longer in attendance, albeit without leave. You left the meeting without ascertaining that the problem would continue to persist or not. Therefore, I cannot agree with you that the DA’s rights to equitable and fair participation were unlawfully violated.”

According to the speaker, this was the first time the council used Microsoft Teams for its meetings and the “shortcomings such as the muting/unmuting of speakers were unforeseeable.” Now the council will have to move its meetings to Zoom, allowing Thusi more control over who is allowed to speak. 

Back in court, Judge Dhaya Pillay threw out Graham’s case, noting that the council member chose to leave the meeting and, therefore, could not cry foul for not having participated. 

Pillay also found that the DA could have found other means of addressing the case of the muted microphone without litigation. 

The judge added that approaching her court was used for “political point-scoring”.