Baleka Mbete always appears nervous when she steps into the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly.
The past five years have not been easy, especially with a group of 25 rowdy rabble-rousers in red sitting to her left.
Her call to MPs before every sitting for a moment of silent prayer or meditation could easily be seen as a chance for her to gather herself and to settle her own anxiety.
“Point of order, Madam Speaker!” is usually the call from an opposition MP as soon as the members of the house take their seats.
“Yes, honourable member. On what point do you rise on?” she responds.
It’s an almost daily ritual for Mbete first to put out procedural or political fires before the day’s plenary work can begin.
She regularly wears a doek. And with her spectacles teetering on the tip of her nose, she wouldn’t look out of place as a school headmistress scolding out-of-control pupils at an assembly. This may be because, before joining politics, Mbete was in the classroom: she is a trained teacher.
Her election as the National Assembly speaker in 2014 was always going to be controversial. At the time, she was the ANC national chairperson.
Opposition MPs complained she would not be able to separate her role as a party office bearer from that as a parliamentary official who is meant to be a fair arbiter in disputes in Parliament.
There have even been several motions to have her removed from the post. She survived a motion of no confidence brought by theEconomic Freedom Fighters (EFFs) in her ability to hold office and, in 2015, political parties went to court to have her removed.
In court, they argued her roles as both chairperson of the ANC and the speaker impeded her ability to perform her function in Parliament objectively. They also accused her of allowing the House to descend into chaos because of her alleged shielding of former president Jacob Zuma during the controversy over his Nkandla home.
But Mbete survived, not only because of the ANC majority in the House, but also because of her ability to sense changing political winds. As the tide turned on Zuma, thanks to the increasingly public revelations about his alleged connections to the Gupta family, Mbete instructed four parliamentary committees to investigate so-called state capture at state-owned enterprises.
This was the start of a process that is still revealing dodgy deals and corruption.
Speaking on the sidelines of preparations for this week’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), Mbete said she was satisfied with her tenure at the helm. She cited the strengthening of Parliament’s oversight and accountability role as the highlight of the past five years.
But acrimony between Mbete and the opposition hasn’t always been the status quo. After she got married in 2016, EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi rose in Parliament to raise an urgent motion without notice.
“On behalf of the EFF, I want to congratulate you on your new marriage. We believe in love, and we believe we must celebrate people who have found love.”
This is the same Ndlozi and the same EFF the speaker had called on parliamentary security to remove on several occasions.
Mbete smiled but scolded Ndlozi for not using a more appropriate time for his urgent motion.
Mbete’s parliamentary office is decked out with the portraits of fierce and formidable South African women freedom fighters. Amina Cachalia, Victoria Mxenge and others line the passage, a daily reminder of the weight of history on Mbete’s shoulders.
She was the second speaker of a democratically elected Parliament from 2004 to 2008, succeeding Frene Ginwala, before returning to the job in 2014.
From her desk, she probably has the best view in Cape Town. The floor-to-ceiling glass wall gives an almost complete view of Table Mountain. It also looks out over the manicured garden of Tuynhuys, the Cape Town office of the presidency.
If history had turned out differently, she could have had an even more powerful office. The once deputy president under the short-lived administration of Kgalema Motlanthe has harboured presidential ambitions of her own.
It has been reported that Mbete was allegedly promised she would succeed Zuma after he left office. But after he tipped Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the job, a disappointed Mbete threw her weight behind Cyril Ramaphosa before the ANC’s December 2017 Nasrec elective conference.
In the past, Mbete was accused of frustrating parliamentary process to protect Zuma but her latter-day willingness to accommodate votes of no confidence using secret ballots meant her apparent allegiance to the former president was dead.
But what does the future hold for her?
The SABC last year reported she would be leaving Parliament after the elections. But she told journalists at a pre-Sona briefing that she was uncertain about what she would do next.
The speaker said she would have to see where she was placed on the ANC’s electoral list and how well the party fared at the May poll, joking that she might return as a backbencher.