In the spirit of #ThrowbackThursday, we’ve decided to reflect on the 2015 State of the Nation Address (SONA) and all the controversies that came with it. Rather fittingly, the annual event also coincided with a somewhat dubious feature film release. We cannot help but wonder whether tonight’s #SONA2017 will be any less chaotic.
First published on 12 February 2015
Two scandalous topics have been on the lips of every South African this past week: the premiere of the long-awaited 50 Shades of Grey movie and the more than 50 shades of chaos that erupted in Parliament during SONA. While many are still debating (no pun intended) whether the movie was a hit or miss, others are throwing around words like “unconstitutional” and “censorship”, trying to make head or tail of what exactly transpired at the joint sitting of the National Assembly and Provincial Legislature.
Scrambling of Cellphone Reception and Freedom of Expression
The Bill of Rights, which is the cornerstone of our democracy, is often hailed by foreign experts as one of the most advanced in the world. On paper, it affirms the democratic values of dignity, equality and freedom that is extended to all, and creates the rightful expectation that these values are to be respected, protected, promoted and fulfilled by those elected to represent our country’s citizens zealously. Underlined are principles of accountability, transparency and openness, which deepens when citizens are allowed to freely interact, impart and receive ideas and participate in the governing of South Africa.
#SONA2015 was not only an opportunity for the executive to update us on the status of South Africa, communicate government’s agenda for the year and to suggest legislative measures to be implemented, it was also an opportunity for participation. In light of the growing public concern about the energy crisis, corruption, unemployment, crime and increasing polarisation of society, expectations around #SONA2015 were extremely high, but to say it was a massive disappointment would be an understatement.
Thursday saw disgruntled journalists chanting “bring back our signal”, after discovering that they had no network reception from their seats in Parliament. According to reports, their rightful discontent was met with the reprising chanting of “ANC, ANC, ANC…” by the ruling party’s MPs. Luckily, signal jammers were de-activated after opposition parties raised points of order and called for journalists to be allowed to report on #SONA2015 and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete requested Parliament’s secretary to investigate. Mention was made of the involvement of the State Security Agency, which would be highly irregular should the allegations be true.
Section 16 of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the press and media who share information with the public by reporting on matters. By allowing the media to report on #SONA2015, Parliament promotes Section 59, which compels it to facilitate public involvement, conduct its business openly and hold its sittings in public. It is clear that by jamming cell phone reception, journalists were prohibited from doing their job and exercising their constitutional right and duty to the public, thereby jeopardising some of the fundamentals of a democracy. Making use of jamming devices is illegal, and may only be utilised by the security cluster where legislation allows. This is evident from ICASA’s Regulations. As Parliament is an autonomous body of Government, it would be a gross breach of the doctrine of separation of powers if the security cluster was involved.
Government consists of three arms amongst which powers and functions are divided, namely the executive (President, Ministers and State Departments), the legislature (Parliament), and the judiciary (courts). The doctrine of the separation is essential in any democracy and provides very necessary checks and balances. The legislature has the authority to make laws. However, the executive remains responsible for policy creation and drafting of laws that are presented to Parliament for debate and adoption. The executive is also accountable to the legislature and is bound to report on its actions. The judiciary, on the other hand, is independent and subject only to the Constitution and laws. This is an important check as it not only allows individuals to enforce their rights, but also to keep the legislature and executive accountable to the values of the Constitution.
The EFF’s insistence on the President to answer to Parliament and the Rules of Parliament
The role of the Speaker of Parliament is an important constitutional task, and her leadership and direction are by no means to be taken lightly. Her duties and powers are regulated and limited by the Constitution, legislation and rules of Parliament. What’s evident from television footage of Thursday’s SONA is that Security Services forcefully and violently removed EFF MPs from the chamber on the rather rehearsed orders of the Speaker of the House, Baleka Mbete. The instruction given by the Speaker raises the important question whether she was entitled to call on the Security Services to remove MPs from the parliamentary precinct. Even before the SONA ceremonies commenced, everyone was well aware that the EFF would raise their issues with the President at SONA, as the Speaker declined their request for a special sitting of the House to conclude the President’s question and answer session. This begs another question to be answered on whether EFF MPs were entitled to raise points of order or questions of privilege.
Rule 14 of the Joint Rules of Parliament permit MPs to interrupt a joint sitting of the houses to raise a point of order or a question of privilege but do not provide for MPs to put questions to the President. The Speaker, in turn, must make a ruling or provide her decision, once a point is raised. It was expected of the Speaker to give reasons for her decision and not to make any arbitrary decisions not provided for in the rules. Speaker Baleka Mbete indicated to the EFF MPs that there would be another opportunity to address the issues raised and that the President would attend a questions sitting on the 11 of March 2015. MPs must adhere to the rulings made by the Speaker, and it was the EFF’s failure to do so that resulted in the Speaker requesting MPs to leave the chamber, and ultimately led to their forceful removal.
Section 4 and 11 of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, authorises the Speaker to call on the Security Services to arrest or remove a person, where there is an immediate danger to life or damage to property occurs. The act also allows for a person to be detained and removed for causing or participating in any disturbance while the house is in sitting. Raising a point of order or question of privilege could hardly be regarded as a danger or disruption, and it is also doubtful, when taking into account the protection extended by the Constitution against arrest of MP’s for what is said in Parliament, whether this section authorises the Speaker to make use of Security Services to remove a stubborn MP. A better alternative might have been to merely suspend the proceedings until order was regained allowing the President to continue with his speech.
While it is unsure how many millions the 50 Shades of Grey movie will rake in over the coming weeks, it is safe to say that the issue of the millions in state funds spent on the President’s private home will cause for a heated question session on the 11th of March 2015 and probably cause more chaos in Parliament. Let’s just hope that the mess won’t be tainted in a darker shade. South Africa needs direction and reassurance that our democracy and economy will survive the turmoil.