The National Assembly approved a set of “interim arrangements” which clearly spells out what happens when MPs are ordered from the House by a presiding officer, but refuse to leave – something that has become common place in parliamentary sittings since the start of the 5th Parliament in 2014.
The interim rule changes were adopted after a vote in the National Assembly.
Several EFF MPs, and some from other opposition parties, had made themselves guilty of refusing to obey orders from presiding officers in the National Assembly over the past few months – the most recent in June when President Jacob Zuma’s question and answer session was cancelled when EFF MPs refused to let him speak, unless it was to answer questions on when he was going to pay back a portion of the R246 million spent on his private Nkandla homestead.
Other opposition parties sided with the ruling party insisting that clear standard operating procedures needed to be adopted to prevent parliamentary business from being interrupted, and to prevent the police from entering the chamber in cases of disorder.
In May, a court ruled that the law allowing presiding officers from calling in police to arrest MPs guilty of disruptions was invalid because it infringed on their right to freedom of speech. The court application was brought by the Democratic Alliance (DA) after members of the EFF were physically removed during chaotic scenes ahead of Zuma’s state-of-the-nation address in February.
Although it remained opposed to police officers entering the chamber, unless there was an immediate risk to life or property, the DA and other parties were of the opinion that the actions of EFF members in the chamber was infringing on their right to hold Zuma and his executive accountable.
“We cannot have a situation where certain members of the House exercise freedom of speech to the effect where it infringes on others members’ of the House freedom of speech,” said DA chief whip John Steenhuisen.
IFP MP Narend Singh compared the National Assembly to a soccer field, saying it was necessary to “red card” certain players for their behaviour, and those MPs then had the right to appeal, but after they had been removed from the field.
“Nobody can take away the right of any honourable member to say what he or she wants on this podium, but these rights come with responsibilities,” said Singh.
Singh supported the idea of a multi-party committee being set up to hear appeals by politicians who had been removed, and through their actions had been automatically suspended from participating in parliamentary business.
As expected, the EFF expressed its outrage at the rule changes.
“We stand here as the EFF to reject with contempt the proposed removal of MPs physically for something they say with their mouths,” said EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu.
However, EFF found itself outnumbered, with 307 MPs voting in favour of the new arrangements, while only 16 voted against them.
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and her fellow presiding officers now have a clear set of guidelines to ensure disruptive MPs are forcibly removed, if necessary, during Zuma’s next question-and-answer session on August 6.
The interim rule changes will remain in place pending the completion of a complete review of the rule book currently taking place.