The EFF - who upstaged the National Assembly's first sitting - and other MPs need to ensure Parliament is not a mere rubber stamp for the ANC.
This week’s theatrics in Parliament, with the Economic Freedom Fighters playing to the gallery in their mining and domestic worker apparel, helped to liven up an institution that is a shadow of what it was in the first 10 years of our democracy.
The EFF will need to move beyond gimmicks if it is to help to ensure that Parliament is not a mere rubber stamp for the ANC and the executive, and that it returns to the vibrancy it possessed in the first decade of our democracy. The Democratic Alliance, too, will need to move beyond caucus intrigue to ensure that as the official opposition it does not lose its way. But, mostly, it is up to the MPs of the ruling party. It returns to Parliament 15 seats poorer, but it is still the dominant party for another term.
We glimpsed the kind of Parliament we should have in the first part of 2008, in the months after then-president Thabo Mbeki had lost the party leadership to Jacob Zuma in December 2007, but was still head of state (until recalled the following September). In those months, emboldened MPs cracked the whip, summoning ministers to parliamentary committees, holding them to account. Even ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe encouraged the ANC caucus to ask ministers the tough questions.
Yet this patch of parliamentary action was short-lived: it turned out that this legislative gumption was just part of the ANC’s “two centres of power” factional war – Zuma’s people versus Mbeki’s.
Soon after Zuma became president of the country, the ANC in Parliament implicitly deferred its powers to the executive. ANC MPs defended Zuma throughout his scandals and did the party’s bidding, including passing dubious laws such as the secrecy Bill.
To his credit, the speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, tried to be nonpartisan. On at least three occasions he allowed the opposition to take on the president. This left Zuma and some in the ANC executive peeved. Now Sisulu is unsurprisingly replaced by Baleka Mbete, the ANC chairperson and a former speaker. She is unlikely to see a vibrant Parliament as more important than the party.
Yet, during Zuma’s second term, and as the politics of succession play out, his power will shrink. The next five years in the national legislature could mean that the governing party’s MPs become more than poodles of the executive, and the Constitution and the health of our democracy – not that of Number One or the party – are put first.