Mmusi Maimane. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
While Mmusi Maimane’s leadership and status have grown and matured beyond expectations, the same cannot be said about the DA’s national policies and strategies, says the writer. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

THE Democratic Alliance (DA) in the National Assembly, along with the media at large, have rightly made much out of the manner in which the presiding officers in Parliament have taken to ruling perfectly acceptable descriptive words "unparliamentary", effectively banning them from debate.

Most recently and infamously, during the debate on the president’s state of the nation address, DA chief whip John Steenhuisen chose rather to leave the chamber than withdraw his criticism that the presiding officer had made a ruling he described as "rubbish".

He was quite right, too. The ruling was rubbish. One might call it nonsense, but then the presiding officers have also deemed the word "nonsense" to be "unparliamentary". The rubbish/nonsense ruling was that the word "faction" had earlier been deemed "unparliamentary" too, a simply ludicrous position. No more absurd, however, than the phrase "juvenile delinquent", which was likewise stripped of any legitimacy. "Political dwarf" would soon follow.

The African National Congress (ANC) presiding officers churn out these kinds of idiocies all the time. Arbitrary, biased, and often just plain silly, they have done much to suppress an open and honest exchange of views, let alone the constitutional principle of freedom of expression. It’s a disgraceful business. Many of those words may be petty or inane but, frankly, that’s up to the public to decide. That’s the whole point of making debate public — so that people can see what is on offer.

It is worth remembering, however, that the DA is the majority party in a legislature all of its own, the Western Cape. And for all its principled anger at the way its national counterparts behave in Parliament, the presiding officers in the Western Cape legislature have made many dubious rulings of their own when it comes to what is and what is not "unparliamentary".

Unlike the ANC, however, the DA — being more efficient — has ensured that the legislature print them all (well, most of them) and so it is possible to compare and contrast the kinds of things these two legislatures rule as out of order. You can find an index to such rulings on the Western Cape provincial Parliamentary Website. They run from 2007 to 2013 (the DA took power in 2009). The party’s efficiency seems to stop before 2014.

Lo and behold, one of the first words to turn up as shared between them is "rubbish" itself. On February 26 2013 the word was deemed unparliamentary in the Western Cape legislature and the member asked to withdraw the remark.

That’s a bit embarrassing for Steenhuisen and the DA. At the very least, the party’s national chief whip should be familiar with the rules as applied in the legislature his party controls. In the national Parliament, he was willing to die in the ditch for the word to stand as fair, accurate and constitutionally protected, but, in the DA’s legislative stronghold, an altogether different approach to the self-same word exists.

According to the lists, other phrases, many of which mirror those used in the National Assembly, have been ruled unparliamentary in the DA-controlled Western Cape legislature (or, in a small number of cases, were withdrawn after a request from the presiding officer). They include:

"That is a lie"; "They stole the poor’s money"; "He is telling lies"; "Fundamental untruths"; "Shut up"; "He gave a very fraudulent performance"; "Bloody"; "She wanted to kill us..."; "Bobbejaan"; "He is very stupid"; "Shut up, just shut up"; "Just keep quiet. Just shut up"; "He must be mad"; "Lying"; "A blatant lie"; "Certain people hated black people"; "Terrorist"; "Jy’s ’n rassis"; "You know that what you are saying is stupid"; "Member, he is telling lies"; "Don’t lie"; "Shut up man"; "Why do you really hate the blacks so much?"; "I will still call you cowards"; "Hoeveel geld steel julle?"; "Racist"; "Fools"; "Jakkals"; "Lid sal beter lyk met ’n kondoom oor sy kop"; "Chihuahuas"; "He is lying"; "Fool"; and "Stupid".

The DA caucus in Parliament gave Steenhuisen a long and pointed standing ovation when he left the chamber.

Before that, he had said to the presiding officer with much disdain, "You are making this house a joke. You are turning this house into a joke. You are not fit to sit in that chair. How dare you, how dare you infringe on his right? How dare you infringe on his right to freedom of speech?"

Later, DA leader Mmusi Maimane had risen to Steenhuisen’s defence. "You can’t invent rulings!" he said, exasperated. "What rule?," he pleaded, "What rule is that word (ruled out of order)?" He would then ask the presiding officer to please "be recused from the chair", as the DA caucus behind him chanted, "Go! Go! Go!".

Finally, DA MP Wilmot James rose and addressed the presiding officer: "The honourable Steenhuisen was within his rights to use the word ‘rubbish’. Any ruling other than that is a violation of freedom of speech, which is enshrined in our Constitution, and I would therefore ask you to withdraw that ruling."

Perhaps Maimane, Steenhuisen and James should have a chat with their own presiding officer in the Western Cape legislature. Presumably they can give the DA leadership in Parliament some guidance, at least as far as the DA’s own rules go.

In truth, the word rubbish has been outlawed twice in the Western Cape. The first time mirrors the national exchange even more closely. A member had said to the speaker on November 27 2012, "Oh rubbish". Sure enough, the speaker asked the member to withdraw, which he or she did. Not a ruling, which would come in 2013, but the exact same attitude to the word as in Parliament.

As for all the other words the Western Cape legislature has ruled as "unparliamentary", there are a fair share of other absurdities in there too. How on earth is the word "bloody" not worthy of legitimate use?

There is nothing intrinsically noble about the list of words the DA has banned in its own chamber, but nothing really harmful either. Saying someone is lying is an accusation only as powerful as a person’s ability to prove it. If they cannot, it is they who look like fools. That is the point of any debate.

As for "shut up", which features prominently and has also been outlawed in the National Assembly, whatever. It’s not an instruction. It comes with no power. It’s just an empty, meaningless gesture used by the weak and intellectually feeble, used as a substitute for argument. It is given power when it is banned, because then disproportionate attention is given to it.

And sure, many of them are insulting. Tough. Debate is hard. Critical debate harder still. Putting up with petty insults comes with the territory. Both the DA and the ANC seem to have no stomach for them, however. Both boast such fragile egos they are able to indulge a completely inane game, where insults are outlawed on the pretence that this, somehow, protects their self-esteem. As if a ruling or withdrawn remark really indicates a change in attitude on behalf of the author.

When a DA speaker referred to an ANC minister as a "political dwarf", the DA’s deputy chief whip, Mike Waters, was quick to jump up and protest, "It is a metaphor!" and to ask, "What happened to freedom of speech?"

But really, what is the difference between that metaphor and "jakkals" or "chihuahuas"? Nothing.

Outside of Parliament, on Twitter for example, both parties let fly with insults that make parliamentary debate pale in comparison.

Parliament is a bubble, a theatre, where MPs pretend they are something they are not.

At any rate, it is worth looking more closely at what happens in the Western Cape and how it compares to Parliament. The DA gets away with a lot of hypocrisy on this front. Its presiding officers in the Western Cape legislature seem to have much in common with those in the National Assembly.

The only difference is the DA cries blue murder about freedom of speech when those rulings are applied against members of its own party but maintains a stony silence about how the rules are applied on its own watch. It puts on a good show. It all seems very convincing. But don’t be fooled, those impulses the DA ostensibly abhors it often practises itself.

We are told much about "Vision 2029" by the DA. If the Western Cape legislature is how it approaches free speech, don’t expect anything to be different in the national assembly, if it ever actually gets its hands on national power.