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Protecting the dignity of politicians

One thinks of politicians as vain and thick-skinned. Arrogant and shameless. Duplicitous bullies. People to tolerate but rarely to love. Men and women with the backbones of amoebae but the survival instincts of cockroaches.

It appears one is just so wrong, for it seems that they bleed emotionally like any of us. All the way to the top of the totem pole. The African National Congress disclosed this week that it is looking at ways of protecting head of state President Jacob Zuma from “disrespect, humiliation and embarrassment” in Parliament. The deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, would be similarly protected.

Poor diddums. Apparently Zuma has been sobbing into his pillow at night at the nasty things that they say about him. Like accusing him of being corrupt, a thief, a liar and implying that he is a dog.

And of Ramaphosa, that he is a “murderer”, responsible for the deaths of 34 Marikana miners. This has been terribly traumatic for Ramaphosa, who has been reduced to constantly washing his hands and muttering, “Out damned spot … ”

The contemplated protections have not been spelt out, but might include limiting presidential appearances in Parliament to answer questions. There definitely will be an increased focus on imbizos, drawing on South Africa’s tribal heritage, where the Big Chief will meet with the Little People and they will have a jolly good chinwag and talk things out.

One wonders what will happen if the citizenry gets out of hand at such an imbizo. Will the presidential goon squad wade in with truncheons? Or more subtly, will the intelligence spooks afterwards take the malcontents behind the bicycle sheds for an intimate little chat about respecting one elders and betters?

It is undoubtedly true that parliamentarians should respect the office of head of state and, indeed, their honourable colleagues. As always, however, reality is more challenging than theory. Sometimes it is difficult to accord the proper respect to a particularly loathsome MP or to a lacklustre and evasive leader.

This is aggravated by one of the opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Front, viewing Parliament less as a debating and negotiating chamber, than as circus arena. Here the EFF can clown around, trip the ringmaster and tweak the nose of the lion. Whatever it does, it is assured that with the gleeful assistance of a widely adoring media — some of which appear to understand less about Parliament’s role than does the EFF — that its crass buffoonery will be cheered by the masses.

Parliament fortunately has tried and tested mechanisms to keep nasty, disruptive brats under control. Unfortunately, the appointment of a Speaker, Baleka Mbete, speaks almost as much to the ANC’s disdain of Parliament, as it does to that of the EFF.

In any case, parliamentary privilege exists only to statements made in the chamber during a session. Slanders uttered outside of these precincts are legally actionable — and none of the clearly defamatory remarks about Zuma quoted above were made under the protection of privilege.

That Zuma is a thief was a claim made by EFF leader Julius Malema during a public meeting at the University of Limpopo, as was his sly implication as to the president being a dog. That Zuma is a liar who should “rot in jail” was a statement made by Malema in front of Sunnyside police station, in Pretoria. All were widely reported at the time.

The question, then, is why the president doesn’t tackle these slurs in court?

After all, he is clearly not averse to litigation. In the past he was quick to resort to intimidatory defamation actions against cartoonists, journalists and media groups.

Between 2006 and 2010 Zuma issued a total of 14 defamation claims, seeking a total of about R65 million in damages. Only one, regarding a reader’s letter, was settled in his favour by Media24 for R50 000.

All the others were withdrawn, ostensibly in the “national interest” but more likely because it had become apparent that none of the other the defendants were going to fold and settle. Zuma — either personally or the state, it is not clear which, since the Presidency has not yet responded to my question — agreed to pay all costs.

The ANC’s proclamations about protecting the dignity of the office of the head of state would be less risible, had the announcement not come during one of the most sustained campaigns of political vilification that the country has seen. That is the government’s own campaign of slurs and abuse against Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

For, by the way, there is already an office in the land that is supposedly constitutionally protected against threatening rancour. It’s that of the Public Protector.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

Author

  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.