President Zuma walks with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete ahead of the state of the nation address  in Cape Town on February 12. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE
President Zuma walks with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete ahead of the state of the nation address in Cape Town on February 12. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE

OPPOSITION parties have united against National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete’s attack on Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema, whom she referred to as a cockroach on Saturday during a meeting of the African National Congress (ANC) in North West.

Among the options the opposition parties are considering is a court interdict to block Ms Mbete from presiding over Tuesday’s state of the nation address debate.

At least three parties, including the Democratic Alliance (DA), said on Sunday that they would be seeking an "urgent meeting" with their colleagues in Parliament to discuss a strategy ahead of Tuesday’s debate on Mr Zuma’s speech.

Mail & Guardian reported on Saturday that Ms Mbete, speaking in her capacity as national chairwoman of the ANC, had launched a broadside against the EFF and Mr Malema whom she called a "cockroach" during her speech at the ANC North West provincial conference.

The newspaper quoted Ms Mbete as having said ANC deployees must work hard and defeat the EFF. "If we don’t work we will continue to have cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place," she said. She called on ANC branches to prepare themselves to fight the EFF in provincial legislatures and municipalities, which she charged the EFF was planning to move into next.

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said on Sunday Ms Mbete could be blocked from presiding over Tuesday’s debate because her statement to ANC delegates in North West was made within the context of Thursday’s state of the nation address over which she presided.

However, DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, who on Sunday was consulting with the party’s legal representatives, said a court interdict could be premature because parliamentary processes might have to be exhausted first. The most immediate move would be to bring Ms Mbete before Parliament’s powers and privileges committee.

But Mr Holomisa disagreed, saying "going the route of Parliament is a waste of time", because the ANC was likely to use its majority to defend Ms Mbete.

Freedom Front Plus chief whip Corne Mulder said "if correctly reported, then what Ms Mbete said was shocking and in any other normal democracy she would be removed as speaker of the National Assembly". However, Mr Mulder said, under the Zuma-led ANC "nothing like that will happen".

He said opposition parties would, before noon on Tuesday, "look at the best options and strategies within the rules and the law to ensure that Ms Mbete was censured".

Although taking the legal route was an option, he said the courts had previously seemed reluctant to get involved in the internal workings of Parliament. The ANC should heed the warning that "Parliament could not function if all parties do not buy into it", Mr Mulder said.

Neither ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa and parliamentary caucus spokesman Moloto Mothapo would comment on Ms Mbete’s "cockroach" slur.

In terms of the constitution, the process to remove the speaker or deputy speaker from office may be implemented when he or she ceases to be a member of the National Assembly, or when a resolution of the National Assembly was passed. The speaker could also lodge his or her resignation in writing with the secretary to Parliament.

Constitutional expert Shadrack Gutto said an interdict against the speaker "ought to be tested because her comments were unbecoming and contradicted the role that she occupies as the speaker".

The "cockroach" comment demonstrated "hatred" towards Mr Malema as an MP as well as his colleagues, Mr Gutto said.

There was a case to be made that Ms Mbete was unlikely to apply the rules fairly where Mr Malema and the EFF were concerned. "There is a good ground to test that in the court or she should withdraw the comments," he said.

But he conceded that it was unlikely that ANC MPs in Parliament would support a motion to remove such a high-ranking member of the ANC as Ms Mbete.

The EFF said in a statement on Sunday that "the country cannot afford to have the speaker of the National Assembly who incites violence against members of Parliament, both inside and outside Parliament".

"Parliament will only be safe when Baleka Mbete resigns, for she is biased and will do everything, including promoting hooliganism, to protect the Cabinet and Jacob Zuma," said EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.