EFF members refuse to leave Parliament on Thursday in defiance of an order by Speaker Baleka Mbete to vacate the National Assembly.   Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
EFF members refuse to leave Parliament last Thursday in defiance of an order by Speaker Baleka Mbete to vacate the National Assembly. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

WELCOME to Tweet of the Week. Every Friday, I use this column to hand out an award to one person who has tweeted something of significance. There are no strict rules, only that the tweet in question must offer an important insight, define a debate (notorious or otherwise) or mark an occasion.

This week the Tweet of the Week goes to: @ParliamentofRSA for:

Tweet of the Week

"President Jacob Zuma will on Thursday, 21 August 2014 reply to oral questions from various MPs in the National Assembly Chamber."

Profile: Parliament’s official Twitter handle is a helpful flow of information on all things happening in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. It does not necessarily engage with the public so much as give updates on debates and events and, occasionally, in-house business such as vacancies and work opportunities. Nevertheless, given the generally low standard of government-related social media ventures, it comes across as a cut above the rest. It has about 82,000 followers.

Citation: Let us call a spade a spade: President’s Question Time is a farce. It is theatre — the pretence of accountability lovingly wrapped in layers of obfuscation, obscurity and obstinacy. On Thursday the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) turned the event into a circus but, once again, they are onto something. Make what you want of their methods, President Zuma did not answer the question.

The EFF-driven chaos is worth analysing in more detail but first it is worth setting out some context. Here are the main barriers to proper interrogation, with regards to President’s Question Time:

1. The President: Zuma doesn’t embody accountability so much as he does evasion. He is not invested in accountability in any meaningful way and his answers, whatever their quality, are imbued with disdain and disinterest. All of which is often met by rapturous applause from the ANC collective. The spirit of the occasion is trapped in purgatory.

2. The Questions: they have to be submitted two weeks beforehand, vetted by a supine Questions Office and made to comply with rules so onerous the chances of asking anything cutting or urgent are next to zero.

3. The Speaker: whatever the President says in reply, goes. The idea of “an answer”, in the speaker’s mind (and it is irrelevant who it is, they all represent this attitude in the name of solidarity), is simply to say something, anything. Ask about security upgrades to Nkandla and the answer could be a 30-minute detour about the hardships of living in rural KwaZulu-Natal. You cannot say, on a point of order, “The President hasn’t answered the question.” Because in the speaker’s mind, he has. That it has next to nothing to do with the question posed is irrelevant.

4. Time: the president can take as long as he wants to answer. Two hours are set aside. He normally gets through four questions, five if the public is lucky. The Presidency will argue that those questions not answered on the day are answered in writing later, but (a) that is not in a public forum and (b) the chance for a follow-up question is lost.

5. The Chance to Interrogate: members do get a chance to ask four follow-up questions, perhaps the last remaining example of direct, unscripted interaction in the House, as the ANC has stripped it of every other mechanism that allows for this. However, it is policed in exactly the same manner and the president treats it no differently from the first question. Former president Thabo Mbeki best encapsulated this dismissive attitude when he read a script in response to a question about his controversial views on HIV/AIDS. Accused in a follow-up of evading the question, he said he intended to simply carry on reading the script. And so he did. And the speaker watched on.

6. The ANC Majority: in a demonstration of suitable acquiescence, an ANC member will inevitably pose what is known as a “sweetheart question” — a chance for the president to shine — using one of the few precious slots for a question to be directly answered by the President. “Mr President, what has this government actually done for the poor?” Cue 30 minutes of self-promotion.

7. The Frequency: President’s Question Time is supposed to take place once a quarter but, quite frankly, that is at the president’s discretion. He has, for example, missed the past two question times because he could not find a slot in his busy schedule. Mbeki demonstrated a similar disdain. But, even if he did appear every quarter, that is still a woeful showing.

This is the farce that is Question Time. Here, then, is what happened on the day (the question paper for Thursday’s session can be found here.)

• The first question was from the ANC. It was a nothing question about government policy and the National Development Plan and the Industrial Policy Action Plan.

• Zuma droned on for 10 minutes, giving a generalised, vacuous response. He then took 12 minutes to obscure any follow-up questions.

• The second question was from the leader of the opposition, Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance (DA). Traditionally this is the showpiece. Maimane’s question was about the National Director of Public Prosecutions and the pending inquiry against him.

• Zuma set out in laborious detail the process behind the inquiry. That took another 10 minutes and no one was any the wiser after the answer.

• Maimane had a follow-up. He asked whether the president believed there was a contradiction involved in him appointing someone who might ultimately have to investigate him.

• Zuma laughed it off. He said there were no charges against him, therefore there was no conflict of interest. He even said: “Your question is not a question.” And later, in response to some chirping: “It is an answer.” It wasn’t. By this stage, 30 minutes had passed.

• By the time the house got to question three — Julius Malema’s question around which the chaos would ensue, asking for the president’s response to the Nkandla report — 40 minutes had passed.

• Zuma predictably said he had submitted his response to Parliament.

• Then the follow-up. Malema said he had not answered. He asked: “When are you paying the money?”

• Zuma simply said that he had responded.

From this point on, things devolved into mad mayhem. Malema and the EFF were having none of it. EFF member after member got up to ask for an answer, growing ever more demanding and animated as they did so. The speaker slowly but steadily lost control. By 45 minutes it was a shouting match. The speaker then asked for security to remove the EFF.

“That money must be paid,” shouted the EFF. Tables were being banged. “You won’t remove us, we aren’t going anywhere.” Then chants, “Pay back the money!” They stood in unison. The sound feed from Parliament broke down at this point. The sign-language translator abandoned his seat. At 48 minutes, the Speaker had abandoned her chair too, no doubt to consult. At 49 minutes the president was led out. At 50 minutes the parliamentary feed stopped showing visuals of the EFF and focused on the parliamentary emblem. At 51 minutes the speaker returned. At 53 minutes, the speaker vacated the House so that security could remove the EFF, for proceedings to continue later.

This, then, is how a formal farce merged with an informal protest to bring Parliament to its knees.

The EFF’s conduct is, of course, deplorable. But then so is the ANC’s and Zuma’s attitude to President’s Question Time. The two combined to create the perfect storm.

Much of the conversation from this point on will be focused on the EFF who, once again, have made Parliament all about them, reducing the DA to bystanders. Certainly they will again be bystanders in Friday’s papers.

I have set out elsewhere the EFF’s programme to disrupt not comply inside Parliament. 

They delivered on it perfectly. And, again, whatever their methods, there is a legitimate concern at the heart of it.

This point is absolutely vital. The EFF’s ability to continuously carry out these kinds of activist spectacles hinges entirely on the legitimacy of the issue they chose. In Nkandla and with the phrase “Pay back the money”, they hit the mother load. Even ANC supporters have their reservations about Zuma’s role in the affair. But if they ever once stray into the superficial of petty, the chaos they sow will work against them.

But don’t for a moment downplay the significance of either of these two things. When a pseudo-democratic institution in decline meets a pseudo-revolutionary movement in the ascendency, and Parliament itself is brought to a standstill as a result, that is a powerful metaphor for a far greater and more troubling national discontent. Question Time is the broken political infrastructure to which the EFF on Thursday took a wrecking ball. The very fact they were able to do so speaks to a country with democratic cracks everywhere.

Who will emerge stronger out of this debacle? Not Parliament. Not Zuma. Not Question Time. But Malema will be smiling. And to dismiss his theatrics as showboating is to underestimate the nature of the environment that so ironically feeds legitimacy and illegitimacy in equal measure.