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SA’s new Speaker of parliament has sparked controversy – for good reason

The Speaker is responsible for providing political leadership and strategic direction to the National Assembly. And they should do so in a nonpartisan manner.
South Africa’s controversial new Speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Image: Ruvan Boshoff/Xinhua via Getty Images

On Thursday 19 August the members of South Africa’s National Assembly convened physically for the first time in a while. They met in several locations in parliament to achieve sufficient distancing in the pandemic. And there was only one item on the order paper: the election of a Speaker.

This was duly done and the former minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was elected to the office.

The Speaker in South Africa presides over proceedings in the National Assembly. They also are the titular head of parliament as a whole, including the National Council of Provinces. The Speaker is elected by a majority of members of the assembly, and may be removed in the same way.

The Speaker is responsible for providing political leadership and strategic direction to the National Assembly. And they should do so in a nonpartisan manner.

Why was this an important temperature check for the state of health of South Africa’s constitutional democracy?

This question must be answered against the background of the ingrained identity politics which characterise the country’s long history of racial oppression and its relatively recent reversal. It would, therefore, have been unrealistic in the first years of democracy to expect conscientious adherence to the unwritten rules and conventional spirit that ideally should prevail in parliament. But the expectation was that this would gradually be achieved.

Indeed, those who served in the position immediately after the country’s first democratic election in 1994 did so with distinction. However, over most of the past 15 years the Speaker has been both weak and partisan, and was responsible for allowing the executive, particularly that of former president Jacob Zuma, to conduct themselves in ways that have brought the government into disrepute.

The election of the new Speaker was thus a significant moment for the governing African National Congress (ANC) to show that it was moving away from its “wasted years” under Zuma.

It failed the test. Mapisa-Nqakula’s elevation to this significant constitutional office reflects extremely poorly on the party leadership. It contrasts starkly with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s oft-stated commitment to uncorrupt governance and to the values of the constitution.

A brief history of the role

The title given to the highest authority in parliament originated in the English parliament in the late 1300s. It then described the person who “spoke” on behalf of the monarch. After the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the Speaker became the presiding officer in the House of Commons.

South Africa inherited that office and title as a former British colony, together with almost all other members of the Commonwealth.

Any legislature needs someone to chair its proceedings, to manage and administer the support services, to oversee the exercise of discipline among its members, and to represent it in discussions with the executive and judicial arms of government.

Various approaches are taken towards the impartiality and independence of the office of Speaker.

In the UK, an MP is elected as Speaker immediately after a general election. The person is generally a member of the governing party, but does not have to be. On election the MP ceases to be a member of the party caucus.

In the US the Speaker of the House of Representatives is drawn from the senior ranks of the majority party in the lower house of Congress. They play a partisan role, balanced with a degree of fair play towards all members of the house.

Most other national constitutions position their equivalent of the Speaker between these two approaches.

What the job entails

As the parliamentary website provides, the Speaker’s responsibilities include:

  • preserving parliamentary integrity and the decorum of the house,
  • ensuring the smooth running of legislative business and the functioning of committees,
  • presiding impartially over sittings and maintaining order.

The Speaker represents parliament as a whole. Their responsibilities include ensuring sufficient budget for its activities, monitoring expenditure and the provision of support for all MPs, and initiating or responding to any litigation in the courts.

In terms of South Africa’s constitution, the Speaker heads the legislative branch of government, and should act as its champion at all times, both nationally and internationally. This is particularly the case in its relationship with the executive.

Effective fulfilment of all these functions requires a highly efficient, dignified, respected and wise MP. The experience of the past 27 years has been patchy.

Rollcall of speakers

An exemplary start was made by Frene Ginwala, who served for the first decade of democratic government. She ruled with a firm yet fair hand, and presided over many initiatives to transform parliament from its lapdog role under apartheid to the vision set in the constitution. The ideal is that parliament represents the electorate and also plays an effective role in regulating the exercise of executive power.

Max Sisulu (2009-2014) and latterly Thandi Modise (2019-2021) broadly followed the Ginwala approach.

Regrettably, the double tenure (2004-2008 and 2014-2019) of Baleka Mbete fell far short of the expectations of the Speaker’s office. On her watch, particularly in her second term, she was frequently accused of treating opposition MPs less favourably than government MPs. She was also accused of blocking parliamentary investigations into actions of the ruling ANC, in particular Zuma.

Indeed, in May this year, she testified at the Zondo Commission into state capture that she had ignored an anonymous whistle-blower’s report alleging corruption in 2007. And, she said, if called upon to decide how to respond to any such report today, she would do so again.

Flawed system

The problems surrounding the role of the Speaker in South Africa are rooted in the autocratic racism of our past. The ability to transcend it is eroded by the electoral system and by the organising principle of the ANC.

The party-list proportional representation model means that only loyal party members will be elected to any legislature in the country. This leads to the tendency to put party interests before those of the country.

This is substantially compounded by the “democratic centralist” basis on which the ANC is modelled. This approach maintains that a degree of disagreement and debate is tolerated within closed party meetings, but that, once a decision or policy is adopted by the majority, every party member has to adhere uncritically to that line.

The consequences for any Speaker are self-evident.

By definition, someone who is appointed as Speaker will be a senior member of the ruling party, steeped in its history, culture and traditions. This is unacceptably reinforced when the Speaker remains an office bearer of the party, as was seen with Mbete, who was national shairperson of the ANC while serving as Speaker.

Mapisa-Nqakula was elected to serve as Speaker after being dropped from the cabinet following an utterly undistinguished period of 15 years as a cabinet minister in three portfolios.
She is herself the subject of investigation by a committee of Parliament for alleged unethical conduct. And she’s been under a cloud for unaccountable and suspect misuse of her authority a number of times.

Parliament’s failure to hold the Zuma administration to account has been graphically and repeatedly illustrated in evidence to the Zondo commission. Given this shockingly delinquent failure by parliament to fulfil its constitutional obligations, the prospects are at best bleak of the new Speaker tolerating, let alone initiating, any more active and effective scrutiny in the next few years.

The temperature check reveals an ailing system of public governance, unable to shift from the burdens of the past.The Conversation

Hugh Corder, Professor of Public Law, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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So the person who called for a genocide against white people if they ever protest again… that truly is moving forward.

A leopard never changes its spots.

Strange country we live in

I miss intelligent educated decision makers not thicker than three coats of paint uneducated corrupt officials who don’t know the difference between helping the poor and fleecing the middle class to line their pockets

“The Struggle” was never about democracy and a better life for all. The last 27 have shown that the entire “Struggle” movement was vailed power grab by the few individuals in leadership roles. Really is sad, because the poor and uneducated masses bought into it 100% to their detriment.

A speaker needs to be impartial. How about a president needs to be honest and ethical?

Clearly, the ANC needs a biased speaker to enable it’s unethical agenda such as RET.

Why else would such a compromised individual hold such a position?

Moves like EWC, the 12% pension contribution, the powerships, national health, the public protector etc, are all issues where the ANC would want to suppress discussion.

It has got used to running the country via the disasterous Corona command council – a model that has killed the economy but consolidated party control and allowed zero questioning of its often bizarre decisions

A biased new speaker will keep the ball rolling.

Guys listen now, the children/clowns are having fun running the country into the gr****.

They is NOTHING you can do, we are totally outnumbered by the purposely kept uneducated voting fodder.

These guys are capable of nothing.

Keep your head down and don’t get caught in the cross fire.

The Zuma faction and cohorts remain fully embedded and undoubtedly control and collude with unhindered mania for corrupt acts and nefarious self-enrichment intentions. The power of this system of absolutely abused democracy is supported by an endlessly feeble-minded majority that is proven uneducable and represents an ever increasing population sector of both burden and hindrance to the rest.

This is what you get when “liberation movements” don’t disband once “liberation” has been achieved.

You now have a country run by ex freedom fighters with no skill except plunder and pillage.

Then you have a leader that everybody (and himself) believes is a successful businessman. He was only first in line as BEE beneficiary. That is no business credential. It is quite the opposite. What happened here is the said individual used his “business skill” to make a deal in exchange for sacking a crook. Just goes to show.

Just get your stuff out of SA. There is no hope for this place with fools running it.

The ANC just recycle the same people. They are all incompetent. It seems as if the ANC have no new talented people to do these kinda jobs?

The ANC has a full pool of incompetents and corrupt comrades to choose from. The results cannot be hidden any longer. Failed state.

End of comments.





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