Parliament is not a shield for the president
Our Parliament has seen it all. Fascists and supremacists once used it as a platform to engineer their perverted sociopolitical ideology. They employed its power to germinate the seeds of hatred; they exploited its grandeur to cudgel public institutions. They used parliamentary rules to throttle dissent.
It was once a symbol of national resentment, and the last refuge of terrified tyrants. For its members, it had the semblance of sheer power. No one could question its actions, its misbehaviour or the content of its unjust laws. It was above the law.
In 1898, Transvaal president Paul Kruger fired his chief justice, JG Kotzé, for attempting to test the substance of the laws of his Parliament (the Volksraad). More than half a century later, a desperate Parliament tried to establish a parallel court – inaptly named the High Court of Parliament – to challenge the decisions of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, which had invalidated a Bill promulgating a segregated voters’ roll.
The absurdity of Parliament’s decision was summarised by the judges in The Minister of Interior vs Harris in 1952: “The High Court of Parliament is composed of members of Parliament who in their capacity as legislators may have passed what purports to be an Act of Parliament, and in their capacity as judges they are called upon to decide whether the instrument which they passed is or is not a valid Act of Parliament.”
The executive used to blur the critical line that separates the powers of various arms of state. Without such separation of powers, as philosopher and lawyer Montesquieu warned, tyranny prevails.
For four decades, Parliament reigned supreme. Members used its decorum, its stateliness and its politesse to disguise their sadistic abuse of power. Thieves, fraudsters, liars, racists and disgraced fascists appended the suffix MP to their names to mask their abhorrent moral deportment. They called themselves honourable men and women, but they dishonoured this House. Men of shady moral persuasion once strutted across this chamber. Dishonest men with forked tongues once stood tall at the rostrum of Parliament.
It survived them, as it should.
It was in this House that some of these dishonourable members showed political contrition. The real transfer of power happened here in 1994, when MP Albertina Sisulu nominated Nelson Mandela as president.
There was a shift, a transformation from the sovereign, invincible super-body to a key branch of government in which South Africans could finally express themselves. Its dignity was restored. The Constitution entrenched its role, but limited its power: “Members of the Cabinet are accountable collectively and individually to Parliament for the exercise of their powers and the performance of their functions.”
National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete should remember this before conflating her constitutional and partisan roles. President Jacob Zuma may be her party boss, but he’s certainly not her superior in the state arena. Her role as speaker includes – or should include – counterbalancing Zuma’s power.
Mandela appreciated and deferred to the authority of the legislature. “I want to take advantage of my being here to attend Parliament although I am not a member of Parliament … I can’t understand how a head of state could be excused from being a member of Parliament, where the fate of the country is being decided,” he said in an interview with the SABC in November 1994.
His was almost a regal presidency, but he never abused his stature to undermine the legislature. He answered uncomfortable parliamentary questions. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, however, saw parliamentary questions as a nuisance. He preferred his domain of power – the Union Buildings.
In 2005, Mbeki’s Cabinet made it clear that some parliamentary questions were an irritation, though it reaffirmed its “commitment … to uphold the status of Parliament, including the obligation of [bringing] the executive to account.”
Further, it said: “In order to ensure that this principle continues to be realised in actual practice, Cabinet has asked the deputy president, as leader of government business, to interact with the leadership of Parliament and seek advice on how to resolve issues pertaining to questions that may be vexatious and repetitive, require detailed personal information about employees, and demand such detailed research that they could bog down personnel and prevent them from fulfilling their other core functions, particularly to service citizens.”
For Mbeki, his authority and stature were buttressed by his leadership of the party, which had the majority in the National Assembly that elected him president of the country. His party dominated the National Council of Provinces as well as the municipal and provincial legislatures.
He saw no reason to defer to Parliament. To him, the legislature was an extension of the party caucus. MPs were nothing but party sycophants and a cacophonous troupe of white reactionaries. The former ought to comply with party discipline; the latter had no moral standing to question him.
Mbeki’s responses to questions after the State of the Nation address were often punctuated by intellectual expletives – and contemptuous venom directed at the opposition.
A banal anecdote illustrating this was when Mbeki questioned the audacity of Tony Leon, then the leader of the Democratic Alliance, in literally occupying a parliamentary seat facing the president, the primus inter pares (first among equals). What he failed to understand is that the president is elected by and accounts to Parliament.
By contrast, former British prime minister Tony Blair, in his autobiography A Journey, conceded that he used to anticipate the prime minister’s question time (known as PMQs) with a sense of disquietude: “PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience of my prime-ministerial life.”
At least the British system gives the voters – and not necessarily the party caucus – more power to hold MPs accountable. Our electoral system, though it protects minority voices, as posited by scholars such as John Stuart Mill, makes the party and its leader more powerful than the legislature and the voters.
This is why Mbete, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and the security cluster ministers fail to understand Zuma’s obligation to answer the noisy MPs of the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Granted, EFF leader Julius Malema’s track record negates his newly found principles and the quest for accountability, transparency and respect for public institutions that he claims to lead. He is no different from Zuma. He’s likely to act the same way should he gain power.
He has displayed a low level of political tolerance before, akin to the DA’s reaction when faced with the ANC’s disruptive behaviour. In April, the DA’s City of Cape Town speaker, Dirk Smit, reportedly ordered the ANC caucus members to leave the council chamber. The metro police were called to prevent them from attending the council meeting.
Yet Malema the MP and the opposition’s role should be appreciated, irrespective of their duplicitous values.
For the ANC members, Parliament is a sanctuary in which to evade public scrutiny and shield the president. The ruling party, its caucus, the speaker and the security ministers spent almost a week responding to the EFF’s obstreperous behaviour and the public protector’s letter to Zuma, and very little time or energy on extracting answers from the president.
The EFF’s actions were not a security threat and didn’t justify a mandate for the ministers of defence, police and intelligence to assess the efficacy of Parliament’s security systems.
Ironically, the Zuma-Mantashe faction of the ANC once emphasised the separation of powers doctrine – soon after defeating Mbeki at the ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007. It suited them then. Like Malema, they were motivated by political expediency and not principles. After the Mbeki faction was eliminated, Zuma’s ANC showed its true colours, especially when faced with a real challenge to its power.
The EFF has exposed the ruling party’s vulnerability and paranoia as it struggles to defend a president who has become a perpetual liability.
When the Indian National Congress became weaker and more vulnerable, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (now the ruling party) disrupted and prevented Manmohan Singh, then prime minister, from addressing Parliament. The opposition – as it did in the United States Congress – can paralyse a weak government. In their spiteful pursuit of political rivals, opposition parties can destroy the pillars of our institutions. We should be alive to this danger.
But in no way does it warrant calling in the riot police and the securocrats to charge and silence them.