Newsmaker – Lechesa Tsenoli: Keeping the house in line

2014-11-24 07:00

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"Honourable deputy speaker, may I have a turn to speak?”

“Honourable deputy speaker, he called me a liar. Is that parliamentary behaviour?”

“Honourable deputy speaker, she is pulling faces and sticking her tongue out at me.”

Lechesa Tsenoli, deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, was the one with the unenviable task of trying to keep order – while dealing with often nonsensical requests from MPs – during three days of chaos, delaying tactics, and endless points of order and motions.

Tsenoli was also responsible for the “longest 10-minute break” in democratic parliamentary history on Thursday. The break eventually lasted seven hours and took the session into the early hours of the morning.

As Baleka Mbete’s deputy, he and a handful of other MPs act as the chairs of the parliamentary sessions on a rotational basis.

This cheerful member from Bloemfontein helped alleviate the tension in the National Assembly this week.

He has a more light-hearted and flexible approach, and seems more accommodating than Mbete, who is accused by the opposition of being controlling, rigid and biased.

His patience and calm nature helped cool emotions during sessions and guide the ship through stormy waters. Many wondered how he did it.

“It’s interesting you say that. I find them [MPs] out of order most of the time!” he joked when City Press spoke to him on Friday.

He relied heavily on the principles of TRE – tension and trauma relief exercise – he has been doing for the past few years.

“One of the effects is they calm you and help to manage stress. It’s a very efficient system of getting rid of old and new stress. I am a trained stress and trauma relief practitioner. I do the exercises regularly, so they help me to stay calm.”

During apartheid, Tsenoli played a leading role in the SA National Civic Organisation and the United Democratic Front.

During the past 20 years, he has served as chairman of parliamentary committees, Free State local government MEC, deputy minister for rural development and land reform, and minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

“All these positions and meetings I had to handle over the years required active interaction with diverse groups of people.

“I think that experience is now very useful,” he said. Tsenoli said ANC debates are, by their nature, robust.

“So cultivating a thick skin is the result of operating in that area.” He seems always to try to resolve issues impartially.

“You have to deal with a mix of MPs from different backgrounds. You must understand what you are dealing with and how they communicate – it is their right to be there. If you are driven by that principle, you do not allow yourself to be distracted by saying anyone is wrong or weak,” he said.

“That member must be protected.” He lost his temper two weeks ago when he demanded of an MP: “Who the hell do you think you are talking to?”

But he withdrew his words immediately.

“That kind of thing, where MPs constantly challenge your authority, is the low point. It pushes you to a place where extreme measures must sometimes be used. “It’s not right, because some of us value ideas that are intellectually stimulating.

“However, when this is prevented by drama, it becomes a problem and we are unable to facilitate good debates.”

Tsenoli says Mbete shares this view and “enjoys debates, discussions, and so on”.

But what of the criticism of Mbete? “Some members have challenged the Speaker’s position, but instead of using the mechanisms at their disposal when they are unhappy with a ruling, they don’t.

“They are personal and attack her instead of differing from her ruling.”

Tsenoli is looking forward to the parliamentary recess.

“A little rest, and seeing family and friends again, is always useful.

“But a lot of political work is lying ahead, like time in our constituencies,” he said.

“And in the new year, preparing for the state of the nation address.”

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