Cope, DA walk out of Parliament in row over Zuma insult

16 February 2010 - 19:22 By Brendan Boyle

More than half of the opposition stomped out of Parliament after Deputy Speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo ruled that part of a speech by Cope's Mluleki George constituted an unacceptable insult to President Jacob Zuma.

With Zuma's morals again at centre stage, MPs yelled across the floor and one got so angry that she was heard to mutter "fuck you" in Mfeketo's direction.

The row began yesterday when George said during debate on Zuma's state of the nation address: "It appears that the nation is deliberately led to lawlessness with absolutely no morals and respect for the people."

Having reviewed the text overnight, Mfeketo ruled that his comment, taken in the context of his speech, was directed at Zuma or his ministers. She ordered him to withdraw, which he refused to do.

When she ordered him to leave the chamber, most Democratic Alliance and Cope members followed. The IFP and the Freedom Front said they agreed that the ruling was wrong, but said they would stay.

In the hubbub, the DA's Diane Kohler-Barnard was heard to mutter angrily. She acknowledged to TimesLive that she had sworn. She said she regretted it and would apologise if asked to. "I shouldn't have, but I was angry," she said.

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the minister of correction services, heard her expletive from across the chamber and complained in a point of order: "She actually said 'fuck you'." Her intervention ensured that the issue is now part of the parliamentary record.

While the DA said later that Mfeketo was wrong and would be challenged if she did not withdraw the ruling against George, the ANC said it would ask Parliament to discipline Kohler-Barnard for her bad language.

In a statement the Office of the ANC Chief Whip said: "The decision by COPE, with the support of the Democratic Alliance, to walk out of today’s sitting of the National Assembly in protest against the ruling on COPE MP Mluleki George is a deplorable conduct that has got no place within a distinguished institution such as Parliament," the Office of the ANC Chief Whip said in statement.

"It is typical of both COPE and the DA, who have anointed themselves as the paragons of morality and good behaviour, to throw toys out of the pram when they are found wanting on issues of proper conduct," the statement said..

The Chief Whip's office said the decision by the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly to give George the matching orders was well considered and sound in terms of the rules of Parliament. Parliament cannot be turned into a circus where rowdy Members of Parliament can impugn on the integrity of the President and hurl insults at fellow MPs just because they disagree with them.

"The allegation by Mluleki George that the President of the Republic is leading the nation into lawlessness is outrageous and cannot be taken lightly. When taking office the President and Ministers take an oath or solemn affirmation to obey, observe, uphold and maintain the Constitution and all other laws of the Republic. To suggest that the President or his Cabinet have deliberately acted in violation of this constitutional obligation is a serious charge that should be brought before the House through a substantive motion," the statement said.

The Chief Whip's office said "We are also astounded by the conduct of DA MP Dianne Kohller-Barnard, who hurled an F-word at the ANC MPs and the Deputy Speaker as she left the House during the walk out. There is absolutely no justification for such unruliness and vulgarity - no matter how much you disagree with your political opponents. The Office of the Chief Whip will ask Parliament to consider taking action against this particular MP to ensure that such conduct is not repeated again".

DA chief whip Ian Davidson confirmed that his party walked out this afternoon,"in protest over the Deputy Speaker’s complete disregard of section 58 of the Constitution".

He said Section 58 affords Members of the National Assembly a right to freedom of speech in the Assembly, and to remain protected against liability to civil or criminal proceedings for anything said before the Assembly.

"The issue arose when Mluleki George MP (COPE) expressed his opinion that the ANC government is taking South Africa down a road to lawlessness. The Deputy Speaker ruled that George was obliged to withdraw his statement. By allowing this ruling to stand, the Deputy Speaker is substantially detracting from the right of Members of Parliament to express in an uninhibited manner their views in the House, thus detracting from the constitutional privilege that members have to freely express their views. The Deputy Speaker must withdraw her decision; if she does not, we will consider taking this matter on review," said Davidson.

"The statement made by George fell well within the ambit of what is permitted by the Constitution, and the Rules of Parliament. The Deputy Speaker cited a rule - Rule 66 of the National Assembly - that is explicitly not applicable to members of Government. That rule states: “No member shall reflect upon the competence or honour... of the holder of an office (other than a member of Government) whose removal from such office is dependent upon a decision of this House, except upon a substantive motion in this House alleging facts which, if true, would in the opinion of the Speaker prima facie warrant such a decision,” he said

He said Rule 66 clearly does not apply to the President, as a member of Government. "The Deputy Speaker also disregarded Rule 72 of the National Assembly Rules, which states: “A member may speak (a) when called upon to do so by the presiding officer; or (b) to a point of order.”

"The Deputy Speaker’s refusal to take my point of order is in clear breach of section 72(b). In terms of sections 70 and 72, she is obliged to take a point of order, at which point she “shall give her ruling or decision thereon either forthwith or subsequently.”

He said the irony of the Deputy Speaker’s actions is that they proved precisely the point raised by George. "To head towards a state of lawlessness means to begin to systematically disregard the rules and law that govern the state. The Deputy Speaker did precisely that. The Deputy Speaker should withdraw her ruling, and desist from ignoring Rule 72. Freedom of speech and parliamentary privilege cannot be restricted upon whim".