AFRICANGLOBE – SECTION 57 (2)(d) of the South African constitution states the National Assembly must provide for “the recognition of the leader of the largest opposition party in the Assembly as the Leader of the Opposition”. But the designation is merely titular.
The constitution affords that person no formal power, only recognition on the basis that their party has the second-greatest number of votes.
That party is currently the Democratic Alliance (DA). The ambiguous nature of the title means there has been some debate over whom it refers to.
Helen Zille is the DA federal leader; but she does not sit in Parliament and, as the relevant clause falls under the section detailing those powers afforded to the National Assembly, one could argue that it refers to the leader in the House.
This has resulted in the informal title most often afforded Mmusi Maimane: leader of the opposition in Parliament.
But as there are no prescripts accompanying it, by what measure is Maimane actually the leader?
In other words, to what extent does he lead the opposition? Does he set the oppositional agenda in Parliament? Is he the most forceful leader in the House? The most charismatic? Do his words command attention and his actions necessitate change?
The answer to all these questions, on the available evidence, seems to be a resounding “No”.
The person who has really set the agenda in the National Assembly in this way is the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema.
This is not a comment on the nature of the message the EFF wishes to deliver to South Africa, nor the strategy and tactics it uses to do so.
It is exclusively a comment about impact. Love him or hate him, Malema has, by some distance, defined the discussion emanating from our fifth democratic Parliament.
And, never mind the opposition, one could go so far as to say he has forced even the African National Congress (ANC) to respond and behave on his terms.
Prior to the protest in Parliament last week, there was a telling moment. Maimane had the second question on the order paper. It concerned the director of public prosecutions and the pending inquiry into his conduct.
President Jacob Zuma laughed it off.
But, more tellingly, he laughed off the follow-up question from Maimane, too.
Maimane had rightly asked whether or not there was a contradiction in the president appointing someone who might well have to reinstate charges against him at some point.
It is the way Zuma dismissed Maimane that is telling.
Zuma made a mockery of Maimane, of the “leader of the opposition” and of the DA. And he did so with a smile on his face. He casually swatted away a question and Maimane as if both were nothing more than pesky flies.
And Maimane nodded and sipped water.
Significantly, the DA failed to challenge this.
It is astounding that the president can simply say, “there is no need to answer the question” and the DA whippery could not even bring itself to challenge that with the Speaker. What more compelling grounds do you need for an objection?
Enter Julius Malema
Next up was Malema, on Nkandla. The contrast is marked.
He starts by saying, reasonably, “we are asking this question precisely because you have not provided an answer”.
Zuma is pensive, his hands clasped, thumbs circling each other. Zuma laughs at Malema’s remark that he is not going to leave until he gets an answer. But it’s a nervous laugh. Malema is aggressive. He points in rhythmical fashion at the table. “We want the date of when you are paying the money.” His language is powerful and demanding.
Malema switches up a gear. His tone becomes more adamant and he points at Zuma.
It is now Malema talking down to Zuma. It is Malema doing the lecturing. Many will say the use of “you” is disrespectful. It is irrelevant. The power dynamic is evident. President Zuma is on the back foot.
The rest is history.
Julius Malema took to Parliament with two main intentions.
His first goal was to humiliate the president who either failed to protect him from or had set him up for legal action. The second was to push through some fairly concerning economic policies.
After leading a protest in Parliament last week, EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi gave a fairly cogent rationale for their protest, and EFF and the ANC are now involved in a lovely case of political mudslinging as they try to establish who brought the greater shame on Parliament.
We can say with certainty that Malema is doing quite well at achieving his first goal.
But here’s the funny thing. Somewhere in the convoluted mess of his intentions – ostensibly of bringing about the economic liberation of South Africans, certainly securing his own power, and without question, shaming those who thwarted him – he’s actually doing a pretty good job.
The day after he pitched up to be sworn in to Parliament in red overalls and a miner’s helmet, it showed how he is really good at making a statement, but as much as we applaud him, his uniform wouldn’t make him a leader.
His actions would have to speak for themselves.
Soon after, he made arrangements with the South African Revenue Service (SARS) to pay back what he owed them, and apologised publicly for his legal liabilities.
So that was a good first step.
And now, we have in Parliament a group of MPs who aren’t afraid of anyone, are not bound by convention, and have no problems with raising a ruckus and being escorted out of the building by the authorities. It makes for a great show.
Malema has become an excellent addition to Parliament.
By being there, and by asking the questions that he does, and by making a stand for the downtrodden, without any care for social nicety or parliamentary convention, he’s having a far greater impact than any other opposition party on
the national psyche.
While we do not know if he were to come into power, he would be answering those questions any differently himself, for now, he’s the asker.
And he’s doing a brilliant job at that.
By: Gareth van Onselen & Georgina Guedes