Dear Corruption Watch, I never thought I'd say this, but watching proceedings in Parliament has become increasingly interesting.
That said, I'm sometimes quite alarmed by what the MPs accuse each other of – from suggestions of corruption to calling the president a thief. I thought we had laws protecting people from being defamed. Why doesn't the speaker of Parliament discipline these MPs?
Dear TV Viewer,
You're entirely correct that laws protect everyone, including politicians, from defamation. However, the members of Parliament (which includes the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces) have a constitutionally entrenched freedom of speech that grants them immunity from civil and criminal proceedings for anything they say in, produce before or submit to Parliament and its committees.
This is referred to as "parliamentary privilege", and is intended to ensure that Parliament is a site of debate and contestation. MPs should be allowed to express views that may be unpopular. This should include the freedom to level attacks on each other as well as others who aren't MPs, such as the president.
Parliament is meant to govern South Africa, so its members should have as much freedom as possible to debate and discuss how the country is being governed and how it should be governed. This includes the freedom to point out when those in power are corrupt.
What of the dignity of MPs and those who aren't in Parliament? How are they protected against attacks on their dignity?
Well, those individuals should have their reputations redeemed by the truth. The best salve to the dignity of a cabinet member accused of corruption is for their political party to provide the evidence showing that the individual is not, in fact, corrupt. In this way, false allegations are dispelled through evidence and debate.
But MPs' freedom of speech is not limitless. The constitution provides that the freedom of speech enjoyed by MPs is governed by the rules and orders of Parliament. Applied properly, these rules and orders facilitate debate, rather than stymieing it.
For example, in 1996, the speaker ordered that "members should not be allowed to impute improper motives to other members, or cast personal reflections on the integrity of members, or verbally abuse them in any other way" except by bringing a substantive motion clearly formulating the charge. The standing order applies only to MPs who wish to accuse their colleagues of misconduct. Used properly, this rule ensures that both sides to the debate – including the MP who is to be denounced – can prepare a proper response.
Similarly, Rule 63 of the National Assembly provides that "[n]o member shall use offensive or unbecoming language". This rule does not prevent an MP from accusing the president of corruption, but it stops them from doing so in offensive terms.
Properly applied, the rules and orders of Parliament facilitate robust debate, which is good for the public. Voters can watch debates or read the reports and make up their minds about who is right. If you think your political representatives are too rude, then don't vote for them. If you think they've uncovered corruption, then vote for them.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times