Will Max Sisulu call it quits?

2013-11-24 14:01

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The National Assembly’s Speaker is nearing the end of his tenure. Jan-Jan Joubert speaks to the true-blue Sisulu in full view of the spectacular gardens of Tuynhuys.

‘There is no law stating that you shall not drink,” says the Speaker of the National Assembly. He chuckles, not for the last time this morning.

For no sooner had Parliament at long last acquired a wine cellar of international stature than Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan clamped down on the purchase of alcohol for state functions.

We sit in the boardroom adjoining his plush office one floor above the National Assembly in the parliamentary complex, offering a truly breathtaking view of the formal Versailles-like gardens of Tuynhuys.

Beyond the gardens, Table Mountain rises as the most spectacular of backdrops.

Four years ago, shortly after his election as Speaker, we sat in this same spot as he granted the first interview in his new job.

Back then, he was stressed and seemingly worried.

But not any more.

He is transformed. He must surely be the most respected Speaker since 1994, a true-blue Sisulu who handles the House with panache and aplomb, strict on everyone while trying to avoid spats with MPs.

He also adds a sense of humour and fun from the chair, something previously unheard of in the House.

“The purpose of the cellar is to promote the wines of the Western Cape,” Sisulu explains. “And it is such a good product.”

He chuckles once more. “We give the wine away. I just gave away two boxes to a visiting dignitary from China. It’s an important market. But, you know, [chuckle] I might just have a bite one day!”

So what makes a good Speaker?

“A good Speaker should listen, not speak. A good Speaker should know the rules of Parliament. A good Speaker should be able to see to it that what is done in Parliament is done well, including the writing of sound legislation and the functioning of committees to an optimum level. A good Speaker must see to it that the executive and judiciary are?...?not in opposition, but working together in the interest of the people.”

He takes pride in how committees, which really form the engine room of Parliament, have been given capacity during his tenure through the employment of good, well-qualified support staff.

The Speaker insists there must be consequences for truant MPs who regularly miss House plenary sessions.

“We are working on it, but current rules make it the responsibility of the parties. We are finalising new rules, which must then be strictly implemented. The rules must govern Parliament. Hopefully, they will be there for whoever follows on my term,” he says.

He believes Parliament is the centre of South African politics. “In a democracy, Parliament is the voice of the voiceless.

South Africa has good people and we must improve their quality of life. We must represent the people and exercise oversight over the executive.

[Cabinet] must do as it should. We have become better at getting the executive to account to Parliament.”

He emphasises Parliament’s often underrated international role in hosting and training public servants from across the world who admire and attempt to emulate the South African parliamentary model.

Sisulu might well be termed the “training Speaker”.

During his time as ANC chief whip, he pioneered academic-training programmes for MPs and parliamentary staff, leading to the involvement of Wits and the University of the Western Cape. “If you know better, you do better,” he says.

To him, the highlight of his job is to see the complicated and exacting parliamentary programme(of which the content, importance and extent remain largely underappreciated by the public at large) fulfilled.

But at times he finds the inherent slowness of parliamentary processes frustrating. “It’s wait for the bill, wait for this, wait for that! I often wish we could speed things up, but it must be done properly and thoroughly. We must not waste time, especially in the fields of education, health and economics.”

Parliament is criticised sometimes for producing poorly drafted legislation. Sisulu concedes the point readily, but points out that it is a global challenge in which South Africa is hardly unique.

“When we pass a bill, we must be happy with the bill. We must conceptualise and draft it well. We must craft it as if it must be there for always, in the clear language in which our Constitution was drafted,” he says.

How does a loyal and disciplined cadre of the ANC remain as neutral in the chair as Sisulu, who is hugely respected by the opposition?

“As Speaker, I am not the ANC Speaker, but the National Assembly Speaker,” he answers.

He is well known as a Speaker who specifically advocates for the interests of smaller parties. “I

respect the views of all parties and often lunch with political leaders across the board. I attempt to be fair and firm.”

Under his custodianship, opposition parties’ speaking time during debates was extended from one minute to three minutes each.

“They represent a constituency. Their voters’ voices must be heard,” he says.

What advice would he have appreciated before assuming the speakership? “Don’t go into politics! Don’t go into politics! Don’t go into politics!” He dissolves into fits of uncontrollable laughter.

Which brings us to a key point of concern for parliamentarians and officials alike: the indications that he will vacate the Speaker’s chair after next year’s elections.

“I have not made up my mind yet. I will let you know when I do.”

He chuckles one last time as he passes into his office, pausing for a moment to admire the Tuynhuys/Table Mountain panorama.

For a moment, hope springs eternal. Our Parliament might yet retain this exceptional Speaker.

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