The role of the Speaker

2010-02-25 00:00

PROVISION is made in the South African Parliament by virtue of the Constitution for the offices of Speaker and deputy speaker. The office of Speaker is one of exceptional distinction and esteem, the genesis of which is veiled in the mists of the past when no records were kept by the British House of Commons. This office­ therefore has an ancient lineage in the Westminster system that is characterised by dignity and fearless independence. This is epitomised in the tumultuous events of 17th-century England, immediately before the inception of the Civil War, by Speaker William Lenthall’s courageous reply to King Charles I, who demanded information concerning the whereabouts of alleged conspirators, after he had impetuously stormed into the House of Commons, accompanied by armed troops: “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

In light of the above, the manner in which Deputy Speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo handled a relatively mild criticism levelled at President Jacob Zuma by Mululeki­ George, a Congress of the People (Cope) member of Parliament, was bitterly disappointing. George stated that “our national leader is leading us down a path of lawlessness.” Mfeketo immediately demanded that he withdraw this statement. He refused to do so and, as a result, was ordered to leave the chamber. Consequently, members of Cope and the Democratic Alliance left the chamber in protest. The deputy speaker premised her decision on the basis that what George had said was offensive to the office of the president. She apparently erroneously invoked rule 66 of the National Assembly Rules to justify her decision. This rule is, however, meant to protect the dignity of judges and prohibits their competency from being commented on. It does not apply to the members of the executive for good reason.

South Africa has adopted a system of responsible or accountable­ government, more or less, as it’s Parliament operates according to the Westminster system. As a result, Parliament has an overseeing and scrutinising role in relation to the executive. This requires that the executive and everything it does must be subject to penetrating and robust criticism. Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to debate in the chambers of Parliament without the hindrance of the law of defamation, as long as the language of members is deemed parliamentary.

The Speaker’s role is essentially to protect the position of minorities in the chamber and ensure that their voices are heard. What Mfeketo has done is the exact opposite. She is giving exaggerated protection to a powerful executive that is prone to abuse its powers.

Unfortunately, previous Speakers in our Parliament have also displayed partiality in relation to the governing African National Congress. For instance, the Democratic Alliance was prevented from asking President Thabo Mbeki pertinent and controversial questions relating to the arms deal by Speaker Baleka­ Mbete.

However, all is not lost, because we now have a supreme Constitution and, as a result, Parliament is no longer sovereign. Any decision of the Speaker that is in conflict with the letter­ or spirit of the Constitution is justiciable.

A powerful precedent has already been set with the saga involving the suspension of Patricia de Lille. De Lille used parliamentary privilege in the assembly, to name a number of senior ANC leaders that she alleged spied for the previous apartheid government, thereby causing an uproar in the chamber. Although she subsequently withdrew these allegations, a special parliamentary committee was convened to consider what action should be taken. The committee, which was dominated by ANC members, ruled that she should be suspended from Parliament for 15 days.

Subsequently, De Lille made application to the Western Cape High Court to have her suspension declared null and void. The court decided in her favour, holding that the ANC-dominated committee had failed to grant her a real and meaningful hearing. Furthermore, the court found that her right to free speech had been infringed on.

The latest episode regarding Mfeketo is, it is submitted, justiciable and the DA and Cope should seriously consider taking it on judicial review. What is at stake is a fundamental aspect of parliamentary democracy and the power of parliamentary opposition to fearlessly and unremittingly call the president and executive to account in the way they govern the country.

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