Tsenoli: Zuma is no accused
It is not acceptable to refer to President Jacob Zuma as “Accused Number One”, “an accused criminal” and “looter-in-chief ”.
This ruling by deputy Speaker of the National Assembly on Thursday has again put the spotlight on freedom of speech in Parliament and may well end up in court if the DA has its way.
At the centre of this latest parliamentary controversy is the question whether MPs may quote from court judgments in their speeches in the House.
On Thursday, the deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Lechesa Tsenoli ruled: “While it may indeed be permissible to quote from court judgments and other relevant documents, and do so accurately, it is not acceptable to use such quotations and other such means to abuse other members or cast aspersions on the character or person of another member.”
Tsenoli said derogatory or disparaging references to members of the House undermine members in the performance of their duties and “undermine the assembly as the democratically elected representative of the people”.
This ruling followed his off-the-cuff ruling during the presidency budget debate earlier this month, where DA leader Mmusi Maimane wanted to quote from a Constitutional Court judgment but was challenged by ANC MPs who rose on points of order to say “Zuma had not been found guilty by any court of law to have acted criminally”.
In his speech, Maimane referred to Zuma as “Accused Number One”, “an accused criminal” and “looterin-chief”, quoting the North Gauteng High Court and Constitutional Court judgments. Zuma is currently waiting to hear if the National Prosecuting Authority will reinstate fraud and corruption charges against him after the North Gauteng High court ruled that they were improperly withdrawn before.
At the time, Tsenoli instructed him to withdraw his remarks promising to come back with a formal ruling, which he did this past Thursday during a debate of Parliament’s budget vote.
DA chief whip John Steenhuisen immediately informed Tsenoli that the DA will refer his ruling to the Rules Committee, which can overrule or amend a presiding officer’s ruling, adding “but we know where this is going to end up”.
Steenhuisen later stood up on the podium holding a copy of the Mail & Guardian newspaper with the headline: “Accused Number One”.
“There is something profoundly wrong with this Parliament when a national newspaper has the freedom to print these words, yet the presiding officers say MPs cannot say what needs to be said in this House!” he said.
Yesterday, Steenhuisen described Tsenoli’s ruling as “a fundamental breach of the freedom of speech entrenched in the House. It’s ridiculous that you cannot now quote court judgments.
“Courts don’t make findings that embarrass people unless there has been wrongdoing,” he said.
He said he didn’t expect success in the rules committee accusing the ANC of shutting down freedom of speech.
“So, we will tick that box and we are on to court,” Steenhuisen said.
Tsenoli said “in accordance with the rules and orders [of Parliament] … it has also been ruled that accusations against a member or personal reflections on a member’s integrity are equally offensive and damaging if they are made by way of a quotation, inference, hypothesis, figures of speech or other literary devices or by being posed as a question”.