Mantshingelanes in Parliament
There is this lame joke about one of those knobkerrie-wielding security guards of old who has instructions from the makhulubaas not to let anyone on to the factory premises after 6pm, regardless of who it is. Then one day, the makhulubaas has to return to the office after working hours to collect something he had forgotten on his desk.
The security guard sternly tells him he has instructions not to let anyone in at night and, as an obedient employer, he will not break the rules.
“But I am the one who gave those instructions,” says the boss.
“Yes it was you and you stressed there should be no exceptions to the rule. If I let you in, you will fire me,” responds the security guard.
After a long time pleading with the guard, the exasperated boss gives up and goes home. He resolves to give new instructions to the guard the next day.
The joke is usually aimed at demonstrating the obstinacy of that era of security guards before the service became more professional.
Back then, employers hired the most obedient and intransigent (and largely rural) males for that job. The unquestioning stubbornness of the mantshingelanes, as they were known, was the guarantee of safety.
The joke played out in my mind this fortnight as I watched the behaviour of ANC members in Parliament’s ad hoc committee on Nkandla.
They walked into the committee room armed with a brief from Luthuli House that they would have to protect President Jacob Zuma at all costs.
When the meeting started, they stuck to their instructions. It was left to the opposition members to make sense. They argued constitutional points, made legal interventions and exhausted their daily oxygen allocations trying to drum sense into the ANC parliamentarians.
The greatest irony was watching the Freedom Front and the Inkatha Freedom Party, who were spoilers during the constitutional negotiations of the 1990s, educating the ANC about the Constitution. But it was to no avail.
Like the knobkerrie-wielding security guard, they repeated what the makhulubaases at Luthuli House had told them to say. Between switching on the microphones to read their Luthuli Houseprepared scripts, the ANC members drew stick men on their notebooks, exchanged WhatsApp messages with friends about the tragedy of Generations going off air and polished their nails.
In the end, opposition MPs marched out of the meeting instead of staying and legitimising a predetermined outcome.
Left to play by themselves, the ANC members spent the remainder of the time convincing each other what a paragon of virtue the president was and why all these horrible people should leave him alone. They stopped just short of breaking into a rendition of Umshini wami at the end of the meeting. A report will be compiled to recommend Zuma for a Nobel prize for his selfless services to humanity.
This behaviour is not new. The mentality of the knobkerrie-wielding security guard took root during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki when party whips drilled into caucus members that their job was not to provide oversight and hold the executive to account, but to protect ministers from pesky opposition MPs.
By the time Zuma took office, Parliament had been severely weakened by the fact that the culture of the ANC was not to question, but to do as instructed by party bosses.
This approach suited the crisis-prone Zuma administration whose ministers needed all the protection they could get from their comrades on the benches. And so Parliament was further reduced to a rubber stamp of Luthuli House decisions – whether it was legislation, a controversial issue or an incident that a minister needed to clarify, the ANC members could be relied upon to stymie any debate.
Even when our soldiers were killed on an unexplained mission in the Central African Republic, ANC parliamentarians sought to shield Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula rather than seek answers. They even angrily called for a premature end to the question session, saying they needed to head home for the weekend break.
This degradation of Parliament is not to be taken lightly – responsive and strong national legislatures are built over time. They develop stature and respect as a result of the work they do on behalf of the electorate. They garner the trust of citizens because they are robust.
But the parliamentary culture the ANC has built is the very opposite of this. New parliamentarians arriving from their previous incarnations as energetic unionists and community activists are turned into sheep. They are simply required to toe the line for a fat cheque at the end of the month and the privilege of being called honourable.
The sad picture we witnessed in Parliament last week is a result of this culture.
What is worrying is that the longer this kind of behaviour continues, the more this culture will be entrenched. Kowtowing to the demands of those in party headquarters will become the norm. And future MPs will believe that once elected, their role will be just like the security guard standing at the factory gates with a knobkerrie.