Op-eds

Parliament – where words will truly harm us

  • Geoff
A parliament can’t operate if its members don’t stick to etiquette. But nothing is perfect. The extreme emotions attached to politics frequently overrides protocol, as we’ve seen lately in this country.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Feb 27, 2020

The modern world has experienced parliamentary shenanigans that are nothing short of comical, from banging desks with shoes in front of stern-faced representatives, to offering to attend sessions naked. The real burning issues sometimes get lost in the quarrels or actually find true expression.

Israel’s Knesset is no exception, amidst the country’s over-heated politics. In 2010, Arab MK Haneen Zoabi was cursed and shoved for relating her experience as a passenger on the Mavi Marmara ship which attempted to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. Other MKs shouted her down. “Go back to Gaza, you traitor!” yelled one in Arabic.

Russian-born MK Anastasia Michaeli alighted the podium, blocking Zoabi from speaking by standing between her and the microphone. Arab MK Jamal Zahalka ran to defend Zoabi. Arab and Jewish MKs scuffled in the aisles, requiring ushers to intervene. The speaker expelled Michaeli and Zahalka from the hall.

A famous international-protocol-breaking incident, which has become legend, occurred during the Cold War at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, filled with sombre delegates. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev vociferously demanded the resignation of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, accusing him of acting for colonial powers. He then shocked delegates by loudly banging his shoe on the desk after the Philippines accused the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of imperialism in Eastern Europe.

How far can vigorous debate stretch without damaging the institution of parliament itself? In South Africa in 1998, Manie Schoeman, the leader of the New National Party from the Eastern Cape punched the African National Congress’s Johnny de Lange, who retaliated. Speaker Frene Ginwala described the incident as a “brawl”. Schoeman, who started the fracas, was suspended from parliament for five days, and De Lange for one.

In 2016, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were thrown out of the chamber for causing pandemonium during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) of then-President Jacob Zuma. And in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA this year, the EFF made it impossible to hear him by constantly interrupting before the speaker suspended parliament. It was worse in the SONA debate a week later.

How you dress is a measure of your respect for your colleagues. But what counts as respect? In 2015, EFF leader Julius Malema, reacting to a parliamentary committee’s deliberations on a dress code, was rumoured to warn that his EFF MPs would discard their trademark red overalls and go naked in the chamber if parliament forbade the wearing of such apparel.

He also rejected anything requiring the EFF to don the more formal-looking garb which characterises many parliaments, saying that they wouldn’t dress like “colonial masters”.

Sadly, South African politics has become so unseemly that senior politicians – Malema and ANC figures – last week accused each other of domestic abuse in front of parliament, the nation, and the world, while gender-based violence is at a high.

Rightly, it caused a huge outcry from all sides of society. Why did the speaker not show leadership and censor the guilty parties by ejecting them from the chamber when this happened? The speaker is as guilty as anyone for allowing it.

It goes further than the individuals concerned. One can argue over whether making such accusations is technically a breach of etiquette, but it’s certainly a breach of the spirit of parliament. Tragically, it makes South Africa look like a playground for bullying by adults who should know better. What do younger South Africans learn from this?

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