South Africans have taken to exercising their freedom of speech like ducks to water. And nowhere is the freedom of speech freer than in parliament. Members of Parliament can defame, insult and swear at each other but nothing said in parliament can be the subject of legal action outside the legislature.
Our parliamentary debate ranges from polite, boring and anguished to aggressive, insulting, humorous and sarcastic. The quality is generally poor.
We have become used to the smart, funny, disruptive yet sometimes apposite comments from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
But in its response to the President’s State of the Nation address, the EFF crossed a line.
Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, the leader of the Congress of the People party (Cope), addressed the house in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s undertaking to realise the African National Congress’s (ANC) December conference resolution to pursue “Expropriation without Compensation”. In his State of the Nation Address Ramaphosa had stated that the approach of making "more land available to our people for cultivation" would include the expropriation of land without compensation. He added: "We are determined that this process of restoring land to our people should be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensures that agriculture becomes a growing sector of our economy." (My emphases)
Although Lekota was somewhat flustered due the constant noise and interjections by ANC and EFF parliamentarians, he raised some brutally honest issues.
Lekota asked Ramaphosa whether he was going to change the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. He asked how Ramaphosa chose to define those whose right to property could be usurped.
"Can you tell me, Mr President, who is not ‘our people’? The National Party used to say others are non-Europeans. Now who is not ‘our people’?"
Lekota listed the country's historic immigrants, from the French Huguenots to Germans who fled Nazi oppression to foreigners who flocked to the country to join the Gold Rush of the late twentieth century, and asked whether the president planned to expropriate the land of their descendants.
In the guise of a ‘point of order’ Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi asked Lekota: “What did you go to Robben Island to do? What were you doing on Robben Island?”
Julius Malema, with his usual disregard for others’ views and their right to hold them, had to have his say: "Comrade Terror, when you went to Robben Island, you were in black consciousness. When you came back you were a historical mistake.”
Lekota became politically active at university. He became an organizer for the South African Student Association (SASO). In 1974, Lekota was arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act, and sentenced to eight years on Robben Island.
After his release at the end of 1982, Lekota was elected national publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front. In 1984 he was arrested and released. In 1985 he was arrested again and charged with high treason in the infamous Delmas Treason Trial. Lekota remained in prison, unable to get bail. In November 1988, he was found guilty and sentenced to twelve years in prison. This was reversed on appeal.
One of the things Lekota was doing in jail was sacrificing his freedom in the cause of giving Ndlozi and Malema the freedom to say whatever they like in a democratic parliament.
The EFF don’t have to agree with Lekota, but to suggest that his 13 years in jail only had meaning if he agreed with the EFF’s nihilistic desire to nationalise all property was extremely insulting.
Lekota’s experience, commitment, hard work and suffering do not deserve to be rubbished by the faux revolutionaries of the EFF. Malema and Ndlozi owe a profound apology to Lekota.