Shortly after the elections last year, this newspaper questioned the rationale of electing the ruling party’s chairperson, Baleka Mbete, as speaker of the National Assembly. A crucial arm of the state, Parliament’s key role is to hold the executive to account. Our position was vindicated during the assembly’s session on Thursday, in which Mbete, again, conflated her party and legislative roles.
First, she showed that she still believes her primary duty is to defend President Jacob Zuma. She failed to distinguish between the functions of the president as head of state, his exercise of public power as head of the executive and the incumbent’s personal conduct. Mbete is technically Zuma’s boss when he is in Parliament. The president is to Parliament what a chief executive is to the board of directors. Section 55(2) of the Constitution states: “The National Assembly must provide for mechanisms to ensure that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it; and to maintain oversight of the exercise of national executive authority, including the implementation of legislation; and any organ of state.”
Our democracy suffers when the speaker of the National Assembly becomes a cheerleader for a particular party or for one particular individual. Ironically for Mbete and the others defending Zuma, on Thursday the president appeared quite capable of defending himself against the opposition (even if he still avoided to account satisfactorily for the Nkandla situation). Yet Mbete chose to misunderstand the fact that all MPs enjoy equal status in the house by virtue of having been legitimately elected by the country’s voters. She warned opposition MPs that they were not equal to Zuma. After protests, she tried to qualify her injunction by implying that she had meant it in the context of age and cultural respect for one’s elders. This also ought to apply to leaders such as the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, she said.
But public representatives derive their legitimacy from the electorate, not from age. Zuma was an ordinary MP until he vacated his seat after his election as president, which is done to ensure the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive – not to elevate him to a status above all others in Parliament.
How are we to fix the defect when the speaker becomes blatantly partisan and shirks her responsibilities to be even-handedly in control of parliamentary business? It is inevitable that if the speaker is also a senior figure in the ANC the pressure from others in the party means the speaker has to play party politics in Parliament. Perhaps assigning the speaker position to a party different from the president’s could be a solution to the problem of how to separate these powers. It does not seem fair to the majority party, which won the bulk of the votes, but some such mechanism is necessary if we are to strengthen the functioning of our democracy.
Ironically, when it convened concerned South Africans in Kliptown 60 years ago to talk about the kind of future they wanted, the ANC envisioned a Parliament of the people. The executive should not be elevated above it.