Thursday, February 5, 2009



By Jonathan Jansen:
Feb 04, 2009

Most disturbing is the utter inattentiveness in general to the person speaking

Sitting in on a parliamentary session was as funny and moving as it was mind-numbingly boring
I HAD never been to Parliament before. So sitting high up in the gallery of the National Assembly last week, I could not tame my excitement.

Was this where they stabbed Verwoerd? (I am told it was next door, in an older building.) Was this where FW de Klerk made his historic announcement? Was this where Thabo Mbeki announced the firing of Jacob Zuma? As I looked down on this sacred space, I had high hopes.

But what I witnessed in the next two hours was boring, funny, poignant and sad.

Many MPs did not bother to show up and the place seemed half full.

I detected only a handful of cabinet ministers, though some notables were present: Tony Leon, Ngconde Balfour, Pallo Jordan, Naledi Pandor, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Patricia de Lille.

I discovered parties I had long forgotten about (like the Minority Front) and others I had barely heard of (like the Federation of Democrats).

And then the fun began. One after another, “motions” of various kinds were tabled. A motion to salute rallying ace Giniel de Villiers and another the Protea cricket team “which whipped the Aussies on their national holiday”. A motion on the matric results and a suggestion about grade inflation. A motion calling for a review of the electoral system.

Most of the time is taken up by a series of speeches saluting the late anti-apartheid politician, Helen Suzman. I begin to wonder whether a more nuanced account of a well- heeled Houghton woman who made her living off an apartheid government pay cheque in an all-white parliament is not required, but we Africans do not speak ill of the dead.

Then a series of congratulatory speeches in honour of American President Barack Obama and I wonder if the busy politician from Chicago will ever read these depositions into the parliamentary record by a small government on the tip of the African continent.

It is the thorough boredom of the place, however, that grips you.

Half the attendees sit with their heads bowed, some dozing off. Others bring work to do and sit ploughing through office papers. A few play with their cellphones.

At any one moment, three or four MPs come and go from the centre court, while pages dressed in black carry water to the thirsty. The speakers drone on and on and on.

Every now and then, an erudite speech rouses “the people’s representatives”.

Tony Leon gives a stirring account of the rise to power of Obama in defiance of his race. Pallo Jordan gives a moving tribute to Obama in praise of his race.

Not an opportunity is missed by the politicians to pack a punch for their party .

Most disturbing is the utter inattentiveness in general to the person behind the podium. At least 10 to 12 meetings of anywhere from two to four people take place at any time, sometimes making the speaker on the floor inaudible.

Suddenly, Inkosi Buthelezi jumps up while Pallo Jordan holds the floor. “Please keep quiet, the minister is speaking,” says the speaker as he knocks his finger into the wooden table in rapid succession. Silence.

The place is not without humour, though.

“I wonder,” asks the Freedom Front’s Pieter Muller as he reflects on America appointing a black president, “if there is a chance that South Africa will appoint a white man like Martinus van Schalkwyk or myself.”

A representative of the ANC gives an impromptu and out-of- place election speech on the might and prestige of the party, to which a tannie from the opposition cries in despair: “Ag Here!”

It is hard to believe that the taxpayer pays people to sit there and sleep away the time, hail the dead, stamp on the living, grandstand on policy positions and occasionally, do something more serious like pass laws squashing the Scorpions investigation unit.

Yet as I sat there, I also realised how far we have come.

Who would have thought that one day, Muslims and Jews, blacks and whites, atheists and Christians, men and women, the rich and the not-so-rich- yet, would sit in the same chamber representing our divided country?

Who would have thought that one day, the leader of Inkatha would publicly defend a leader in the ANC?

Who would have thought that the Freedom Front and Pan Africanist Congress would one day pay the same message of tribute on the same platform to a black man in the White House? Eish!