Guest Column

A response from Parliament to Mpumelelo Mkhabela

2016-12-15 10:21

In an article, published on 2 December 2016, Mr Mkhabela criticizes the speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Mbete, for her leadership of the National Assembly. Mr Mkhabela states that, under her stewardship, the National Assembly has failed to uphold the Constitution and the law, failed to facilitate accountability and suppressed the opposition. In this way, he concludes, Parliament has lost the respect of the public. Such assertions cannot go unchallenged.

It must be said that the author fails to appreciate the role and functions of the speaker in the National Assembly and generally the functioning of Parliament. This lack of understanding leads the author to unfortunate and rather misguided conclusions. The speaker, although an elected politician, is not responsible for political decision-making – she is, instead, the custodian and arbiter of the rules and procedures governing the House. This is in addition to her role as the executive authority of Parliament together with the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces.

Her responsibilities are clearly defined and articulated in law and in the rules. The Leader of Government Business, on the other hand, is responsible for coordinating the processing of government business within Parliament. Other important role players in Parliament are the political parties. Parties participate in the proceedings of Parliament through the mechanisms of the different committees and in plenary. 

The ability of the National Assembly to process matters before it depends on the participation and cooperation of political parties. If political parties decide to walk out of proceedings in order for the assembly not to be quorate, it can never be held against the speaker. Similarly, if political parties decide to disrupt proceedings for whatever reason that again cannot be held against the speaker.

It is not the responsibility of the speaker to enforce party discipline or muster quorums, but rather the chief whips and whips of parties. All parties must therefore take some responsibility for ensuring that their members are present so that the House can decide on important questions. Mr Mkhabela, rather oddly, dismally fails to acknowledge and appreciate obvious reported facts that at each time when there has been serious disruptions the speaker has convened party leaders in order to raise and address with them issues of the decorum, image of Parliament, general conduct and discipline of their members. Thereafter, there has been a resolution and commitment by all parties except one to address the issues.

As for holding the president to account, the writer should not favour the rule of law selectively. The rules provide accountability mechanisms for the president. There are also constitutional mechanisms for holding the President to account including his removal. The role of the speaker is to facilitate the vindication of these rights by the members. This means that through the structures of Parliament and the leader of government business, the speaker must facilitate the appearance of the president in Parliament for questions and other sessions, in order to account.

In this regard there are two sides of the same coin, starting with the perceived refusal of the president to appear before Parliament to answer questions that was resolved to the satisfaction of the constitutional standards and members through the intervention of the speaker. The second aspect of the same issue is the prevention and disruption of the president to exercise his responsibilities of answering questions in the House, that has been resolved through the intervention of the speaker and all concerned. The speaker has also diligently facilitated the scheduling of motions of no confidence against the President as required by the rules. That is the role that the speaker is constitutionally required to play not the one ascribed by Mr Mkhabela. It is not clear why Mr Mkhabela reserves his one-sided scathing and fallacious venom for Madam Speaker.

Mr Mkhabela supports his rather unfortunate position by making reference to the judgment of the Constitutional Court which found that the National Assembly contravened the Constitution by not holding the president to account for the matter of the spending on his private residence at Nkandla. It should be noted that when the report of the public protector on Nkandla was received by Parliament it was duly tabled by the speaker and an ad hoc committee established, once again Mkhabela fails to acknowledge that. The substantive consideration of the report is the domain and responsibility of parties who come with positions and members of Parliament in their respective constitutional obligations.

The second corollary point is that when the report was first tabled and considered by Parliament there was no legal certainty about the status of the remedial actions of the public protector. Only with the benefit of the judgment could it be said that the National Assembly acted erroneously. Parliament nevertheless welcomed the judgment as being instructive on how it should deal with reports of the public protector that have remedial actions and undertook to review and advance its relationship with the institutions supporting constitutional democracy. This reported point eludes Mr Mkhabela.

Mr Mkhabela also suggests that the speaker has harassed opposition members and even hired officials to eject members who, the author contends, were only attempting to hold the President to account. Whereas the Constitution does mandate the National Assembly to hold the Executive to account this function must be exercised in accordance with the rules governing the House. The speaker does not create rules, she implements them. Rules are created by members and adopted by the collective of the National Assembly. What the writer omits, perhaps deliberately, is that the rules he is referring to were unanimously adopted by twelve out of thirteen parties in Parliament. Moreover, there can be no question that all parties in the National Assembly have had the opportunity to participate and articulate their different political standpoints and thereby represent their constituencies. Mr Mkhabela makes the cardinal mistake of thinking that the speaker or any presiding officer when they are chairing, are part of the party political machinery of either the ruling party or the opposition parties. Therefore, when strategies of either opposing parties do work in the House that is the problem or responsibility of the speaker or presiding officer. That assertion and averment is wrong, unfair and unjustified in our parliamentary system. To boldly suggest that accusations made by some Members from both sides of the divide should be sustained is a gross misunderstanding of the role of the speaker or any presiding officer for that matter.

Mr Mkhabela also makes mention of a recent court judgment which found that Parliament must broadcast all proceedings, including disorderly conduct when it occurs. Parliament has noted this judgment and its implications. As a matter of fact the court of first instance initially upheld Parliament views that were later overturned on appeal. Once again that should clearly illustrate that there was no clarity on the matter which was later provided by the appeal court. It must be said that the democratic Parliament, since 1994, has taken considerable efforts to ensure that its proceedings are accessible and open to the public, including the media, with whom Parliament has cultivated a positive relationship. The presiding officers and other leaders regularly brief the media on important developments. 

Mr Mkhabela also argues that some officials and office-bearers in public institutions such as the SABC have lost respect for Parliament and sought to evade the institution. It is a matter of public record that Parliament has taken steps to legally enforce its powers whenever the circumstances demand it. In the case of the SABC, for instance, the National Assembly has established a committee to enquire into the actions of the board.

This committee, as indeed do most others, has the ability to summon any person to report, a measure which it has taken. It is important to understand that the National Assembly, and Parliament broadly, fulfils a large part of its mandate through committees. A closer following of the work of the committees in general and the ones cited by Mr Mkhabela clearly records decisive, stern action and resolve by committees to exercise their powers and strong commitment of Members of Parliament to discharge of their responsibilities. The power to establish these structures is derived from the Constitution. It is not clear how Mr Mkhabela thinks the speaker or a presiding officer would have regulated, ordered or directed how these officials must behave and what they say, other than through mechanisms already provided and exercised. Mr Mkhabela either wittingly or unwittingly decides to ignore these blatant facts before him. 

It is rather puzzling to expect the speaker, in breach of the rules and the law, to assume the roles of the leader of government business, political parties and party whips, committees and the plenary of the National Assembly. Such a situation would not only be untenable but unconstitutional. Mr Mkhabele as an experienced journalist should know that or at least do proper research.

Read the original press release here

Read more on:    baleka mbete  |  parliamant
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