Unparliamentary behaviour, now and then.
This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.
Demetrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central.
Early version, ‘Parliament of Fouls’, in the Sunday Times, 18 January 2015.
I am sitting in the National Library, ordering up back issues of the Sunday Times, trying to find a particular paragraph which describes just how dysfunctional parliament became during the 20th year of South African democracy. There were many accounts of the chaotic sessions in the National Assembly just beyond the trees of Government Avenue; but I remembered this one in particular for the attention it paid to the physical gestures made by MPs as they baited each other in front of a public that was by turns amused and appalled.
Traced back to its root, the word ‘Parliament’ means speaking. The Old French source is preserved in the Afrikaans spelling on signs in Cape Town’s Company Gardens: Parlement. But in South Africa, 2014 was the year of ‘unparliamentary language’…It began with a brilliantly effective piece of political theatre: new political party the Economic Freedom Fighters being sworn in while wearing red labourers’ overalls (men) and red domestic worker aprons (women). Since then the EFF have set about jamming the language of the National Assembly in all registers, with little patience for verbal formulae and niceties inherited from abroad.
In finding out more about what is and is not unparliamentary, I have learned that different assemblies throughout the world have different approaches to the matter. Suggestions of dishonour or intentional dishonesty are generally prohibited. Some nations go so far as to list specific phrases that should never be used again, so forming a rich archive of political insult. ‘Ringmaster’, ‘dirty little rat’ and ‘bucket of shit’ are expressly disallowed by the Indian parliament, where a 2012 list of banned terms runs to over 10 000 entries. Canada has outlawed ‘evil genius’ (1962) and ‘trained seal’ (1961), among many others. Then there are euphemisms like ‘gross terminological inexactitude’ or ‘being economical with the truth’, coined in Westminster to avoid outright accusations of lying, where the ability to insult a political opponent within the bounds of decorum unfolds as a kind of gentleman’s game.
It is precisely such games that the EFF and other parties showed themselves increasingly unwilling to play, or else found ways of subverting, often through non-verbal means. A rich language of gesture has by now evolved in our National Assembly; which is apt, given that (in literal terms) the phrase ‘unparliamentary language’ suggests not just the unspeakable, but also the unspeaking and unspoken
The ‘showerhead’, an old favourite, has often been used to taunt President Jacob Zuma. But new forms have also emerged: for painting nails, for spy satellites, and for aeroplanes. The Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier has maintained outstretched arms whenever Public Service Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is speaking: a protest against her allegedly spending R11 million on luxury jet travel. The EFF have taken to ‘conducting’ in front of the ANC MPs, whom they dismissively refer to as ‘the choir’. The middle finger has made its appearance, as raised by Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. ‘The insult by a childish EFF MP who pointed the Speaker with a middle finger…must,’ the South African Communist Party insisted in a statement of 17 September, ‘be addressed as a matter of urgency.’
On Thursday 13 November, EFF MP Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela digressed from a speech on hydroelectric power to accuse President Zuma of being (as if in some kind of magical realist narrative by Amos Tutuola or Ben Okri) ‘The Greatest Thief in the World’. In footage of the encounter, the Speaker immediately requests that the claim be withdrawn, but the Honourable Mashabela does not budge. The stand-off goes on for several minutes:
Speaker: Honourable Member, I must ask you to withdraw that statement.
Mashabela: I can’t withdraw, Chair. Zuma is a criminal. Zuma is a thief.
Speaker: Honourable Member…
Mashabela: We all know it. The world knows it. He is the greatest thief in the world. Chair, I can’t withdraw.
Shortly afterwards, riot police enter the chamber and the camera feed is shut off, with Mashabela’s last audible words being: ‘I don’t want to be touched.’
The disrupted State of the Nation address that began 2015 would bring still more chaotic scenes and heavy-handed tactics. But it is worth pausing to note the historical significance of 13 November 2014. As several newspapers remarked, it was the first time that police had entered Parliament since the assassination of apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, almost 50 years before.