Mbete: Parliament's integrity intact
National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete on Tuesday moved to assure her colleagues in Parliament that she was impartial and objective.
Mbete has come under heavy criticism over the past 10 days for allegedly protecting President Jacob Zuma in violation of her constitutional duties and being heavy handed against Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs by inviting police to intervene in a political stand-off when EFF MPs disrupted a plenary session where questions were posed to the president on August 21.
On Tuesday, Mbete told the National Assembly that she had taken note of reports that the sovereignty of Parliament may be under threat “and [I] wish to assure honourable members that Parliament will continue to retain its independence in line with the Constitution and the doctrine of separation of powers.”
Mbete said security was called on to assist the Serjeant-at-Arms when EFF MPs refused to leave the chamber, in open defiance of the chair.
“Honourable members, the principle of separation of powers between the three arms of the state, as determined by the Constitution, is based on a system of checks and balances inherent in the relationship between the three arms. The Constitution provides not only for the legislative role of the National Assembly, but also for specific oversight and accountability functions,” said Mbete.
She added that while there may well be legitimate concerns about the quality of replies to questions, there were appropriate processes and mechanisms available, both within the House and outside of it, for MPs who were dissatisfied with a reply to obtain further information in line with their oversight responsibility.
Policing authority in Parliament
Mbete also explained that security services perform their policing function in the precincts of Parliament with the permission and under the authority of the speaker or the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, as is provided for in terms of the Powers and Privileges Act.
“Let me state that at no point did I call on the public order police unit during the events of August 21,” said Mbete. Police Minister Nathi Nhleko told journalists on August 26 that it was he who called the police to Parliament during the disruption.
“I must also mention that the capacity of Parliament’s protection services department is receiving attention and this is to ensure that members of Parliament can be confident of their own safety and security within the precincts,” said Mbete.
She said the National Assembly had to fulfill specific constitutional functions and it was therefore imperative, in the overriding interests of protecting the functioning of the House, that the speaker be entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the House is at all times able to perform its functions.
Mbete spoke about her responsibility as speaker to ensure that the rights and privileges of all MPs, both individually and collectively, were protected.
“You elected me for that purpose. As such, I cannot but strongly condemn the disruption of the proceedings in the chamber and the manner in which this impeded the House’s ability to conduct and conclude its business.
“Such actions undermine the democratic process and I must urge all parties to guard against this. No matter how little one likes or trusts what the other has to say, honourable members must recognise the legitimacy of all other honourable members to be in this House and be accorded the right to have their voices heard and be treated with the dignity, respect and tolerance to which they are entitled as elected representatives of the people,” she said.
Mbete revealed that she could have immediately suspended the EFF MPs concerned from Parliament but that at the time she opted for a lesser sanction, which was to order them to leave the House.
Powers and privileges committee
Last Tuesday, Mbete told the National Assembly that she was referring the conduct of the EFF MPs to the powers and privileges committee for it to investigate whether their conduct constituted contempt of Parliament in terms of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act.
At the time, Mbete also told the House that while the matter was before the committee, she was also considering the implementation of item 10 of the schedule to the rules, which makes provision for the suspension of members where the allegations against them are of a very serious nature.
She said on Tuesday that she had considered the submissions from the EFF MPs, and that she had decided that the processes underway in the powers and privileges committee would best serve the purpose of giving effect to the relevant provisions of the Constitution, the Powers and Privileges Act and the rules of the National Assembly.
“At this stage, I will not invoke item 10 of the schedule to the rules,” she announced.
EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu challenged Mbete’s statement, saying it wasn’t fair for her to make such conclusive remarks about the EFF when there was a parliamentary committee that would be investigating the matter. But Mbete would hear none of it, as she disallowed any debate on her statement.
“We don’t agree with the observations that you have made here, most of them are wrong,” charged Shivambu, adding: “You are not God, you can’t say things and then say it’s final!”