Parliament’s speaker insists that asking EFF members to leave was necessary and not born out of conflicted loyalties.
Following the ruckus that shook the National Assembly (and the country) last Thursday, culminating in an unprecedented parliamentary crisis, Baleka Mbete – the speaker who seemed to have lost control of the house – remains defiant and unrepentant.
“I would do exactly the same thing I did [again]. I would take exactly the same position I took,” she told the Mail & Guardian during an interview this week.
“I play every role I have to play by its own rules … So I don’t hesitate, I don’t have any regrets about anything that I have done and I will continue to do so.”
When a handful of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs defied her orders in their boisterous attempt to force President Jacob Zuma to give a commitment to repay a portion of the public spending on his Nkandla home, their action tested Mbete’s patience and prodded her partisan loyalty.
Although she is leader of one of the crucial arms of state – the legislature – Mbete is also chairperson of the ruling party. Not only that: she was also deputy leader of the executive when she served as caretaker deputy president after the 2008 presidential recall crisis, when the ANC pulled the plug on Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.
Did she juggle these two conflicting roles – speaker and ANC chairperson – professionally last Thursday afternoon? Some disagree, but she told the M&G that she is experienced enough to strike a balance between the two seemingly jarring roles.
“I have been speaker for almost 10 years before, and that’s always been our system – that the party that wins the confidence of the people overwhelmingly is the one that appoints the speaker and the executive,” she says. This is Mbete’s second stint as speaker – she was also in the chair between 2004 and 2008.
Her response to accusations of her biased chairing of the house and how she handled the EFF fiasco: “In my own conscience, I know I have done my job as objectively as is humanly possible. I’ve played my role as I know the role of speaker is supposed to be played. I really am not worried about the accusations.”
She said the EFF had prevented the president from answering their questions.
“How can I protect a person who must come and answer to the people of South Africa, and it is members of Parliament who disrupt him in the process of answering the questions that had been posed to him?”
Mbete tried to quieten the EFF MPs. But parliamentary observers believe she has always made a greater effort to protect the executive, especially the president.
Ironically, she was criticised harshly by the opposition when she travelled, supposedly as an impartial speaker, to Durban in 2007 to show support for Zuma during his court appearance on charges of corruption.
But she is neither “shaken” nor “worried” about “accusations of me protecting the ANC”.
“I have ruled against ANC people and, in the past, I have even thrown ANC people out of the house, but of course, people won’t see it when I act against ANC people because they want to be able to continue to throw stones and I am not worried about that,” she said.
To her, the small EFF caucus was delinquent and disruptive.
She has given the EFF MPs until Friday August 29 to explain why they should not be suspended.
EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said this week that EFF MPs will argue that their actions in Parliament were part of their constitutional right to express themselves.
They embarked on the protest because of frustration with the speaker, who was making it impossible for them to hold Zuma to account, Ndlozi said.
“We will argue that she is conflicted as the chairperson of the ANC,” he said. “We view this as part of the broader mission to threaten us into submission, to stop us from raising issues as robustly as we have been doing.”
Ndlozi said the EFF MPs do not feel threatened. “This talk of suspension, expulsion and even the police doesn’t move nor threaten us,” he added.
The matter was referred to Parliament’s powers and privileges committee to investigate whether the EFF’s conduct constituted contempt of Parliament.
Mbete’s colleagues in the executive – security ministers in particular – also want to rein in the EFF. She said South Africans should not be alarmed by such precautionary security measures.
But has the executive hijacked her powers and taken over Parliament?
She disagrees, even though Parliament has increased the number of police in the precinct and security was tighter at the entrances to Parliament this week. Access was also more restricted than usual.
Mbete tried to downplay and defend the security ministers’ attempt to defuse the tension last Thursday and their subsequent media briefing in which they seemed to have taken control of the parliamentary security – her domain.
“There are no ministers or structures of the executive that are going to come and run Parliament. They will come at the invitation of Parliament,” she said.
She confidently said that next time they would be better prepared for any similar event. “It shouldn’t also leave people with an imagination that there will be a Marikana here in Parliament; there will never be a thing like that,” she said.