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Pirates has parliament at sixes and sevens

Pirates .jpg

The South African parliament and especially its speaker are ‘at sixes and sevens’ about how to deal with opposition parties taking to the piratic tradition of disrupting proceedings with ‘filibustering’.

Clearly at a loss of how to deal with the disruptive tactics of opposition parties in parliament, speaker Baleka Mbete recently ran out of ideas in terms of the rules of parliament and called in the riot police. The result: chaos and confusion.

These circumstances perfectly fitted the textbook definitions offered for the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’. One source says it “describes a state of confusion or disarray”, another that it means to be “in two minds about a choice to be made”. According to yet another it means to “expose fate to hazard”.

But why the digits six and seven, not five and six, or whatever other two digits?

The answer to this question is the subject of some debate between etymologists. Some claim the roots of the expression can be traced back to the King James version of the Bible, with the translation of Job 5: 19, that reads: “He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.”

Another opinion holds the conviction that it derives from the days of the mediaeval livery companies that were established in London, including The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors (Tailors) and The Worshipful Company of Skinners (Fur Traders). “The precedence of the companies was set in 1515, but these two companies disputed their positions. Under an agreed compromise they exchanged sixth and seventh place each year, at Easter.”

Personally, based on the weight of available evidence and known etymological patterns in English, I go with the explanation that the original digits involved were indeed five and six from the Old French ‘cinque’ and ‘sice’ – the phrase deriving from the dice game called ‘hazard’ with those digits considered the riskiest combination to bet your stakes on.

The earliest citation of the phrase in print, in this ‘dicey’ context, dates back to 1374.

Similar digits-connected phrases are also found in other languages and cultures. To describe what happened in our parliament, the more appropriate phrase might be the Chinese version of luan qi ba zao, translating to: “Chaos seven eight bad”.

Filibustering parliamentary pirates

The debating technique employed in the South African parliament, aimed at denying the governing ANC an opportunity to adopt a report on the Nkandla affair by using up available time, goes back to Roman times.

The first known example occurred in 60 BC when senator Cato the Younger tried to prevent Julius Caesar from attaining consulship.

The term ‘filibustering’ became attached to this parliamentary ‘spoiling’ technique in 1853 from the then relative new kid on the block in the family of parliamentary democracies, the USA. The insinuation at the time was that a member of parliament/congress was ‘pirating’ parliamentary proceedings.

The word itself traces its origins back to the Dutch word ‘vrijbuiter’ originally translated to ‘flibutor’ (1580s) and later to ‘freebooter’, a term used by the 17th century to describe pirates in the West Indies.

Since 1851 the term ‘filibustering’, via the Spanish version (‘filibustero’) of the original term, became used in the USA to indicate the lawless activities of American opportunists who stoke revolution in several Latin American states for their own material benefit. The two most noteworthy campaigns were those by Narciso Lopez of New Orleans in Cuba (1850-51) and William Walker of California in the Mexican state of Sonora (1853-54).

It was in this context that ‘filibustering’ made its political debut in an 1853 speech by congressman Albert G. Brown of Mississippi, condemning the actions of American ‘freebooters’ in Latin America, and Cuba more specifically.

It was used in the sense of employing techniques of delaying debates in the legislature in the US since 1861 by ‘pirating’ the institution’s time or overthrowing the usual order of its authority.

From there the term spread throughout the world’s parliaments and in 1874 Joseph Gilles Biggar took to making long speeches in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons to delay the passage of legislation appertaining to Ireland.

This tactic, and the term for it, still survives in parliaments across the world. Examples include:

• In July 1998 a proposed “Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill” was blocked in the UK’s House of Commons by filibustering;

• In 2009 New Zealand’s parliamentary opposition staged a filibustering operation to delay government’s plans to legislate a new council for Auckland by proposing thousands of amendments – a technique similar to the scores of private motions proposed by opposition in the South African National Assembly;

• In 2006 opposition parties in France submitted 137 449 amendments to a proposed law that would have required 10 years to vote on under normal parliamentary procedure; and

• Earlier this year in Ireland none other than the minister of justice, Alan Shatter, staged a filibuster of his own and was accused of just “droning on and on”, executing a “drone attack” on parliament.

Maybe someone should make a movie, Pirates of Parliament Street, and ask speaker Baleka Mbete to be the director.

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by Piet Coetzer

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