EFF MPs are physically removed from parliament, sparking a fist fight. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/RODGER BOSCH
EFF MPs are physically removed from parliament, sparking a fist fight. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/RODGER BOSCH

A day before the election of the sixth parliament, the president approved amendments to parliamentary laws, barring presiding officers from forcefully ejecting or arresting MPps who disrupt proceedings in a peaceful manner.

The past five years has seen the disruption of parliament mostly by EFF MPs. This happened most often when  former president Jacob Zuma appeared in parliament on occasions such as the state of the nation address and when he came to answer questions.

In most cases, the EFF MPs ended up being violently manhandled by parliament security and forced out of the house. In one instance, police officers were called in to quell the rowdiness, leading to a large outcry from opposition parties and political observers.

In March 2016, the Constitutional Court ordered that Section 11 of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act be amended to allow for free speech in parliament. Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke wrote in the majority judgment that the prospect of detention or prosecution has a “chilling effect” that “constitutes an infringement of parliamentary free speech”.

“I imagine members would be loathe to express their views if they foresaw the prospect of being manhandled or handcuffed,” acting justice Robert Nugent wrote in the concurring judgment.

Now, the speaker or a chair can no longer issue such an instruction.

Parliament erupted in chaos on when opposition MPs traded blows with parliamentary security personnel during former president Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address in 2017.

Amendments to the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act were assented to on Monday by the president, a day before the term of the fifth parliament ends. The proposed amendments were sent to the president at the end of August 2018.

The new definition of “disturbance” in the act “does not include an act committed by a member in the exercise of his or her privilege contemplated in sections 58(1) and 71(1) of the constitution”.

The sections in question state that members of either the national or provincial legislatures have, subject to the rules, freedom of speech, and so cannot be held criminally liable for anything they say, produce or reveal in the legislature.

The amendments further protect members from possible arrest while executing their duties. “A person, other than a member, who creates or takes part in any disturbance in the precincts while parliament or a house or committee is meeting, may be arrested and removed from the precincts, on the order of the speaker or the chair,” reads the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Amendment Act.

The EFF’s Godrich Gardee refused to comment at this stage, saying the party would only do so after the election. 

vandermerwep@businesslive.co.za