Senior members of Parliament – on both sides – tell me that politics is not what it used to be. It has become characterised by bitterness, outright hostility, if not hatred, and by the vilification of MPs. It has gone to hell, say some.
I left Parliament ten years ago to become a diplomat at the invitation of President Mbeki and his minister of Foreign Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. I was the first DA MP to be made an ambassador since 1994. It was agreed and accepted that I would remain a loyal member of the DA and be trusted by the ANC government to serve South Africa. This was followed a year or two later by three other DA members: Tony Leon, Sandra Botha and Sheila Camerer. Such an appointment is very unlikely today because the civility and the mutual respect of former times has largely disappeared.
After 1994, President Nelson Mandela set the tone and leaders like FW de Klerk, Tony Leon, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, General Constand Viljoen, and Reverend Kenneth Meshoe all treated each other – and the Speaker -- with courtesy and mutual respect. That example was followed by the Whips and naturally, by the ordinary MPs. Debate was extremely robust; make no mistake about that, but opponents did not form the impression that one hated them. We differed as South Africans who all wanted the best for our country.
Having served in the Transvaal Provincial Council for 16 years, the Benoni Town Council for 5 years and Parliament for 17 years, I recall only one violent occurrence in any of them in all that time. In a sensational development in parliament in 1998 Johnny de Lange of the ANC and Manie Schoeman of the National Party punched each other; both were suspended from parliament as a punishment. Those certainly were different days. I recall how mortified de Lange was at the time – he felt his career might be harmed by this unprecedented violence in parliament. He need not have worried – he went on in later years to become the deputy minister of Justice.
In 2014, IOL reported an interview with Kenneth Bange, a man who started out as a parliamentary messenger but was now much more senior. He reminisced about what the Argus described as “pivotal, touching and heated moments.” He went on to say, “What people don’t know is that the MPs are highly professional. Opposition MPs don’t hate each other. They have friendly and cordial relationships outside this room.” While that might have been the case and is still so to an extent today, my experience is that there is no love lost between the parties.
Not all MPs are yahoos who do not know how to behave, but many of them carry on like thugs who hate those who differ from them, attempting to smother all other opinions, displaying intolerance that does no credit to Parliament. Some television viewers are amused but decent South Africans witnessing bad behaviour simply shake their heads in despair.
There are many examples of unacceptable conduct by some MPs. Just a few will suffice: Minister Malusi Gigaba, minister of Home Affairs and little controversial for other reasons, showed his little finger in a sign of contempt to people opposite in the House. He really ought to know better. But he is not the only one. Floyd Shivambu, like his “Commander-in chief,” is a serial offender. Clever, persistent and with a loud voice he constantly ignores the rules. There are others. During a clash in the House some time ago, ANC MPs, including ministers, shouted “racist”, “sell-out” and “f… you” – all unparliamentary language – during the violence that erupted.
The latest fisticuffs between a member of Agang and an EFF member, took the behaviour to a new low. Speaker Mbete was quite right when she expressed grave displeasure about the latest incident. This followed other similar incidents of violence in the Parliamentary precinct and she then stated: "It is unacceptable. We can't allow a situation where certain individuals come to a democratic Parliament just to trample on its constitutional rights and Members of Parliament’s rights to perform their work.”
The real deterioration began with the election of the EFF in 2014. Not only the EFF at fault, but they are always at the centre of trouble. As with populist parties all over the world, members of the EFF project a certain self-righteousness. They slang opponents, make accusations, many of them unfounded, and adopt a stance that delegitimises their opponents. Any views other than their own are not worth listening to, and they go in for self-aggrandisement to a laughable degree. This extends to military type uniforms and titles for their leaders.
They attempt to create the impression of a military force of some magnitude, instead of a quite small party that represents some 6% of the voters, with leaders with no military experience. They intimidate others with their threatening attitude and they treat the Speaker, other presiding officers and the House with contempt.
News24’s Jan Gerber, with an exquisite turn of phrase, recently wrote as follows: “These types don't want a better society, they want power. They're following the populist's guide to demagoguery: projecting an image of victimhood and brute power while, at the same time, using minorities as scapegoats and trying to intimidate anyone who doesn't indulge their delusions of grandeur.”
Hopefully, the end of this Fifth parliament will see a new beginning after the election. South Africa expects better of its parliament and its representatives and perhaps the whips will resolve to restore the mutual respect and the good relations that existed in the years after 1994. Surely that is not too much to expect?
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.
This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.