The elephant in the Assembly
Parliament is a rumbustious multiparty battleground, especially nowadays. No love is lost between honourable members, who generally shout at – or past – each other. So during the 11 marathon budget vote debates that took place this week, there was a lot of grandstanding, namecalling and defensiveness. There was also loads of hot air, as most members stuck to their dull scripted speeches, amid many points of order but few comfort breaks.
But within the teetering walls of Parliament, there were a few constructive moments.
On Tuesday, for instance, Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom heaped praise on members across the political spectrum in his closing reply during the debate on his department’s R2 billion budget.
In a mix of English and Afrikaans, he thanked members for their “great and beautiful speeches”. Saying that he really meant it, he said he had extracted many positive points about ways to fix domestic and international tourism.
Although it is standard practice for ministers to glibly thank members after a debate, the minister was speaking from the heart. In fact, he was almost gushing. It was clear he had also listened to and responded to what was being said.
Hanekom appealed for everyone to work together to find solutions. “We can’t afford to be fighting with each other. We all love our country,” he reminded members as the country edges closer to the fraught local government elections.
During the Treasury budget vote the following day, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan also displayed congeniality during his reply to the debate. He appealed for a new narrative to “create a common national purpose”. To deal effectively with the threat of ratings downgrades, for example, he said labour, business and government needed to get together, along with political parties, “notwithstanding the fact that we are moving into an election session”.
Gordhan also looked forward to a “culture change” by engaging with opposition members, including DA Shadow Finance Minister David Maynier, who in his critique of Treasury had ambitiously proposed over 300 amendments to the budget and plans to introduce four Private Members’ bills.
The real challenge, said Gordhan, was to find the kind of leadership “that puts national interests above the scrappings that we have to engage in during day-to-day politics”.
Hours after these olive branch gestures, chaos erupted at the start of the presidency’s budget vote debate in the National Assembly. At that moment, the immediate stumbling block towards rebuilding trust and establishing a new culture was laid bare – the massive divide over the current leader of the country.
Heard is Media24 parliamentary editor